America’s public schools are the center of communities, the propeller of opportunity for our children and the cornerstone of our democracy. But over the past decade, federal, state and local policymakers have waged a full-fledged effort to defund public education.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has referred to public schools as “dead ends” and has spent decades, first in Michigan and now nationwide, trying to dismantle our public education system. DeVos has advocated defunding public schools in favor of so-called school choice and has promoted federal budgets that would slash funding and resources like after-school programs that support our most vulnerable children.
All children deserve a powerful, purposeful public education that supports their well-being; engages them deeply in learning; and helps them build the skills to reach their full potential, succeed in the modern economy, and be informed and active participants in our democracy. Every public school should be well-funded, safe and welcoming—a place where families want to send their children, where teachers want to teach and where students find joy in learning.
According to a 2018 report by the AFT, funding for public education in half of U.S. states is lower than before the Great Recession. Tax cuts for the wealthy have drained public coffers, while resources for public education are diverted to charter schools and voucher programs for private and parochial schools that are not designed to serve the public. These “school choice” programs ultimately undermine the entire public education system. Private and charter schools are not automatically bad, but they are largely unaccountable to the state and lack public education’s record of helping all children, not just the most privileged.
So-called school choice programs, austerity policies and attacks on teachers’ unions are part of a coordinated effort to undermine our public education system. In addition to cutting funding, these opponents of public education use tactics like litigation, “drop campaigns” to convince union members to opt out of dues and legislative attacks to weaken the ability of teachers’ unions to fight together for public education.
In 2018, the average teacher salary in 38 states was lower than it was in 2009. The earnings gap between teachers and other college graduates continues to widen, discouraging students from pursuing careers in education. Labor Department data shows that teachers left the profession last year at the highest rate on record, citing low pay and lack of support and resources as key drivers of their decision. When politicians defund our public schools, our children, educators, the economy and democracy all suffer.
Overcrowded classrooms mean students are unable to get the personalized attention needed for quality education, especially in early childhood development and special-needs classes. High student-to-counselor ratios mean many students cannot get the support and guidance they need as they pursue post-secondary education and training or start their careers. Deteriorating school buildings and properties, outdated teaching materials and unhealthy, unsafe environments send students the message that society does not value them. This can have long-term psychological effects, on top of making our children less competitive in the global labor market.
Far too many schools lack essential support staff like nurses, librarians and social workers to ensure students have the resources they need. The loss of art, music, drama and other programs that develop creativity and joy in learning denies students an outlet for self-expression and a safe space to be themselves, crucial elements of intellectual and emotional development.
These are among the reasons teachers’ unions are so crucial. Teachers’ unions and the broader labor movement have always played a central role in collective efforts to fight for a better life for union members and the communities we serve. That is why together we are launching the Fund Our Future campaign at the local, state and national level to reorder the priorities of those in power so that we invest in what children, educators and public schools need.
The teacher walkouts and strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Chicago, Los Angeles and elsewhere have galvanized community support for public education, drawn attention to the catastrophic impact of austerity and anti-public education efforts over the past decade, and forced those in power to change course. These efforts have shown how collective action can accomplish what is impossible to achieve alone. These walkouts and strikes have been more than about pay, with teachers’ unions putting the concerns of parents and students front and center in their demands and demonstrating that teachers want what students and communities need.
And support for strengthening public education and respecting teachers is at an all-time high. The latest PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools shows that a record high of eight in 10 Americans prefer strengthening public schools over finding alternatives, and 78% of public school parents support teacher protests and walkouts. In the recent Los Angeles strike, 82% of families with children living at home supported the efforts by teachers to stand up for their students and schools.
The AFL-CIO stands shoulder to shoulder with educators, students and communities demanding a reordering of priorities. We are proud to join with the AFT in the campaign to Fund Our Future, launched in March 2019, to increase investment in public schools and colleges and universities at the local, state and national level.
Further, we call for policymakers to invest in public education and provide teachers and other school staff the resources and support they need. We will do this by joining teacher and community protests and mobilizations; fighting back against efforts to retaliate against public school teachers who stand up for students and communities; educating our members; fighting efforts to weaken the collective voice of educators who come together in unions; and electing leaders who will support and fund public schools.