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Conservative “extremists” who have pushed for curriculum restrictions, book bans, and laws targeting LGBTQ+ students want to end public education, not improve it, the head of the nation’s second largest teachers’ union said Friday.

The remarks from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, came at the start of the union’s TEACH 2023 conference here, where she introduced a new $5 million campaign from the union aimed at boosting literacy, combating students’ worsening mental health, and propelling students’ academic recovery from the pandemic.

The campaign was largely a response to conservative criticism in recent years and an attempt to show that the union is engaged in finding solutions to K-12’s pressing problems, she said. And during Friday’s speeches by Weingarten and U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, an aggressive response to conservative attacks on K-12 schools was on display.

Weingarten singled out politicians including former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis along with the conservative activist group Moms for Liberty, calling them “fear mongers,” “bullies,” and “extremists” with the goal of dividing Americans.

“Why do extremists demonize, distort, and demagogue public education, and why don‘t they offer a single idea to strengthen public schools?” Weingarten said. “The answer, my friends, is pretty clear to me. Because they don’t want to improve public education. They want to end it.”

Over the past two years, the AFT president has been labeled the “most dangerous person in the world” by former Secretary of State and CIA Director Mike Pompeo and was called to testify in Congress this spring to respond to Republicans’ accusations that the union conspired with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep schools closed during the pandemic.

Alongside Cardona, Weingarten railed against efforts to restrict curriculum, ban books, and enact anti-LGBTQ+ laws that prohibit transgender and nonbinary students from using bathrooms and playing sports that align with their gender identity.

“We cannot be afraid to speak out, we cannot be silent in the face of these corrosive attacks on education,” Cardona said in his speech Friday. “It’s our turn to drive the action.”

Weingarten also drew attention to historic declines in math and reading scores and children’s worsening mental health, saying that teachers have to shoulder the responsibility of finding solutions.

“The offense that I’m talking about is to be aggressive about solutions,” Weingarten told reporters after her speech. “We have to fight back.”

AFT will use resources to advocate for changes

The AFT conference brought over 1,000 educators to Washington to lobby congressional representatives, attend workshops, and hear from education leaders, including Cardona and Weingarten.

Weingarten outlined five strategies to counter students’ worsening mental health and learning loss, which will be the core focus of the $5 million Real Solutions for Kids and Communities campaign:

  1. Ensuring students become confident readers
  2. Providing all students with opportunities to engage in experiential learning, including career and technical education
  3. Caring for young people’s mental health and well-being and demanding more accountability from social media companies
  4. Expanding community schools that partner with families to provide a range of health and social services
  5. Fighting for additional teaching and support staff and resources

AFT leaders, as part of the campaign, plan to travel to at least two communities a month in the coming year to showcase educators implementing effective practices, Weingarten told reporters after her speech.
The longtime AFT leader also said she’ll push for districts to use evidence-based approaches to literacy instruction.

The union invested $500,000 in a partnership with the public television station WETA in Washington to develop Reading Universe, a free product that provides online videos and step-by-step instruction to help teachers learn evidence-based reading practices, which launched Friday. That’s in addition to the union’s Reading Opens the World program, through which the union and the nonprofit First Book have distributed 1.5 million free books to children and plan to distribute 1 million more.

Evidence-based reading instruction could be an area of common ground for the union and its critics.

A group of conservative state education chiefs advocated for evidence-based reading instruction late last month in Philadelphia at the national summit of Moms for Liberty, which backs conservative school board candidates and has grown in influence since its 2021 founding.

Weingarten told reporters after her speech that she has long advocated for phonemic awareness and evidence-based reading practices, and said she’s glad Moms for Liberty and conservative state superintendents are behind it as well.

“I hope some of those people actually heard what I said and see that we’re serious,” Weingarten said.

Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have passed laws or implemented new policies related to evidence-based reading instruction since 2013, according to an Education Week tracker. However, teachers’ unions haven’t always been on board with the policies, arguing that they limit teachers’ professional autonomy and that some of the laws have unreasonable implementation timelines.

In addressing students’ declining mental health, AFT earlier this week published a report with the American Psychological Association and other groups calling on social media companies to prioritize children’s safety, protect students from overuse of their platforms and “risky algorithms,” safeguard young people’s privacy online, and work with schools and families.

“These companies must protect young people, not prey on them for profit,” Weingarten said in her speech.

Weingarten called on educators at the Friday conference to use their skills waging local campaigns for contracts and political causes to advocate for solutions, essentially going on offense, she said.

‘You mess around, you’re going to find out’

Cardona called out conservative politicians and others who have pushed for book bans, curriculum restrictions, and anti-LGBTQ policies. The secretary cited physicist Isaac Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there’s an opposite and equal reaction.

“You mess around, you’re going to find out,” Cardona said. “We see a lot of efforts to mess around with public education today.”

Cardona also criticized private school choice programs that have gained momentum this year in a number of Republican-led states as well as a recent House GOP spending proposal that would cut funding for Title I, the federal program that schools with large populations of students from low-income families, by 80 percent.

Cardona chastised groups such as Moms for Liberty and conservative lawmakers for “working to whitewash history and censor educators at the expense of our students.”

He also called for, as he has done recently, raising teachers’ pay and giving them a larger role in crafting school district policies.

“We need to get back on offense and reclaim the narrative about our public schools,” Cardona said. “Public education is the foundation of opportunity in America. It is and it has been the great equalizer.”

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