Commentary: So… I promised short speeches, so let’s get right to it.
The world has changed since last we met. I think our last RA was 413 years ago. Doesn’t it seem like a lifetime has gone by in the last few months?
And we’ve got a lot to talk about.
We’ve got to fiercely look into the face of our current reality and a White House that believes in alternative facts. There are corporate billionaires who — for their own profit — have tried to dismantle environmental protections, consumer protections, worker rights, civil rights, the right of every blessed child to have a quality public school — those same corporate billionaires and their cronies who are now the cabinet secretaries of departments they vowed to destroy.
It was in his interest and not the interest of school children that he nominated a woman who had never worked or volunteered or even stepped inside a public school to be his Secretary of Education. He chose a billionaire — the queen of for-profit privatization of public education — Betsy DeVos.
Were you quiet about that? I think not. We asked you to act, to make some phone calls to your senators to tell them what you thought of this nominee. We’re usually pretty happy when we get 100,000 messages. We got one and half million. And she failed to win a majority of the Senate she needed for her confirmation, having been rejected by members of both political parties. We forced the Vice President, for the first time ever on a cabinet nomination, to schlep up to the Capitol and break the tie. That is not a small thing.
I received an invitation from Betsy DeVos to meet. I responded by writing back and told her that before we talked about meeting, I needed to hear the answers to the questions that she refused to answer at her Senate confirmation hearing. And I made it easy. These are all True/False questions. Yes or No.
- Will you hold voucher and charter schools that receive public dollars to the same standards of financial transparency as public schools?
- Will you agree never to privatize federal programs like special education or funding to support children who live in poverty?
- Will you protect all students from discrimination — our students of color, our English Language Learners; our immigrant students; our Muslim students; our girls; our LGBT students?
I’m going to let you all know her answers just as soon as she gets back to me. But in a profoundly disturbing way, we’ve already received them, haven’t we?
One of the first acts of the Trump/DeVos administration was to rescind the Office of Civil Rights letter that the Obama administration sent to districts clearly stating that they were legally responsible for protecting our transgendered students from discrimination. This administration gave a green light to the despicable, intentional, institutional humiliation of a vulnerable population of students. So, her answer is “no”. She will not protect ALL our students.
Let me tell you that for me this is not partisan. I’m from Utah. When I left my state and the Democratic Party didn’t have a quorum. I have worked and played well with Republican legislators and governors. I know how to find common ground with people who will never agree with me on lots of things that are really important to me. But I can usually find something to bring us together. Because whether or not you're Republican, Democrat or of some other party, we might disagree on how to get there — but in my experience, most people — most people — want something good for kids and their families, even if they have bad ideas about how to do it. They don’t have bad intentions. I get that we need to find ways to use our influence wherever we can.
I need to say that, because there have been plenty of people — people I know and love in my own family; people in this very room — who’ve pulled me aside and told me — in very patient and respectful ways (most of the time) — that even if all I just said about this president and this secretary of education were true, that the election is over and we have to find ways to cooperate with this administration.
Let me say this to all of you as clearly as I can, so that even if you disagree with me, you understand what is in my heart: I will not allow the National Education Association to be used by Donald Trump or Betsy DeVos. I do not trust their motives. I do not believe their alternative facts. I see no reason to assume they will do what is best for our students and their families. There will be no photo-op.
We will find common ground with many Republicans and many Democrats on many issues. We will not find common ground with an administration that is cruel and callous to our children and their families. And I don’t just judge them by their words; I judge them by their actions. By their works shall ye know them.
Look at their budget. Now there’s a piece of … work. I have 10 BILLION reasons not to trust them. One reason for every dollar they cut from programs that lifted up our struggling students — cuts to after-school programs; cuts to special education; to student loans and college work study; to Head Start, to Historically Black Colleges and American Indian education programs; community schools and magnet schools and gifted programs and arts programs all cut, cuts to children’s health care; cuts to food for hungry families — and what did they increase using the money cut from children? — a brand new shiny private school voucher program for schools that are allowed to discriminate and over-promise and under-deliver and not be held accountable for the public dollars they take away from public schools.
I was venting to my neighbor. She said: Lily, it’s bad, but don’t worry. I don’t believe he really means it. It’s just a place to begin bargaining.
Maya Angelou wisely said: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
We know who Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos are. They show us every day. And I believe them. They show us every time we watch the news. By the way, how many of you can hardly stand to watch the evening news anymore?
Good lord, I stopped turning on the TV news. Which is ironic, because for many years, current events was how I began my day with my sixth graders.
Every morning, my kids could get extra credit if they reported on an article they read in this thing called a “newspaper”. Remember “news”? Remember “paper”? Good times.
They had to summarize it; explain what was happening; give an opinion. Then the class got to give their own opinions. And they got to ask their own questions. (In my class you got a jellybean for a good answer. You got two jellybeans for a good question — and all my kids had cavities. Now, THAT would be a fun measurement on a teacher evaluation.)
But my kids knew what question would get them three jellybeans.
Soon or later, someone would ask: So, are we going to do something about it? Ah!
There’s a blood shortage. Should we put on a blood drive? Yes!
A nice man named Barney Clark is in the hospital at the University of Utah receiving the first artificial heart. Should we send him valentines shaped like actual human hearts with right and left ventricles? (Yes! But that was actually a little creepy.)
Cars are parked illegally in the handicapped parking spaces. Should we throw rotten eggs at them? No. No we should not.
Sometimes the answer was no. But mostly, the answer was yes. Yes. We are going to do something about it.
In this room, we’re many things. We’re Democrats and Republicans and Independents. We’re bus drivers and teachers and secretaries, adjunct faculty and public service employees and librarians and nurses and college students and retired educators. We are young and old and gay and straight and men and women of every race, religion and ethnicity. And I know guests who have entered this Assembly amazed at how diverse we are, and how we still manage to debate and disagree and respect and even love each other.
But I understand what brings us together. We come into this room unafraid of facing the brutal reality. We never kid ourselves. But we listen to each other. We form our opinions. We ask a lot of questions and the most important one is: Are we going to do something about it?
Now, you don’t wait for the NEA Representative Assembly to act. Not all the fights are in Congress. Back home, all year long, you’ve been using the power of our collective voice to fight and to win.
Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia — you protected your students by beating back vouchers at your state capital this year. You won!
When the governor in Georgia pushed a ballot initiative to give the state power to takeover local schools, the Georgia Association of Educators led the fight and the public said: No thank you. You won!
In ruby-red South Dakota, the mighty South Dakota Education Association did the impossible and brought together Republicans and Democrats to do a good thing: to raise needed taxes and get more money to starved public schools. You won!
And right here in Massachusetts, the MTA with an amazing coalition of true believers in public education fought back an initiative on unaccountable charter expansion — and you won!
Now I could go on and on and on and on about the amazing work of every state in this room, but I promised you a short speech. So I want to leave you with this:
We can win. We have power. And they know it. So, we stand in a dangerous place. We stand between a profiteer and his profits. They’re going to hit us with everything they’ve got because we are a threat to them. They will try to take away your freedom to organize. They will try to take away your freedom to negotiate with a collective voice. They will try to silence us because when we win, the entire community wins. Working people who don’t even have access to a union win, because we’re there to fight for their kids’ schools and affordable college and affordable health care; for their Social Security and Medicare; for a living wage and the ability to support our families. So they want us stopped.
Our opponents know that a lot of us are retiring, and so they will pour alternative facts into the ears of the new generation of educators and those in public service with lies about who we are.
But they won’t succeed. Because we know in our bones who we are. And we will tell every new colleague the truth about who we are: We are the members of the National Education Association. We are the voice of education professionals. Our work is fundamental to the nation, and we accept the profound trust that is placed in us.
This is not a drill. We will be fearless. We will hold strong. We will focus on growing even stronger — defending our students, our families and our communities;
We know who we are and we know the power of our mission:
That we welcome every blessed child
No matter what shape they come to us.
No matter the color of their skin.
No matter the language they speak
No matter where they find God.
We take them all.
We love them all.
And we give the world
The mothers and the fathers and the
Thinkers and the builders
And the artists and the dreamers.
We give the world the American Dream.
We give the world the future.
Hermanos y Hermanas — esa es la democracia.
This is what democracy looks like in the house of the National Education Association.
Be fearless. Be Proud. Be warriors.
Ya es tiempo.
Go Fight Win.
The full keynote address can be viewed on Facebook Live at https://www.facebook.com/neatoday/videos/1331834796884534/