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Two children holding Democratic party political signs.
Teacher activism in the U.S. has helped pushed the Democratic party towards renewed investment in public education. Children listen as former president Barack Obama campaigns for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, Oct. 21, 2020, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/ Matt Slocum)

How teachers’ union activism helped shift the U.S. election debate on education

In the fight for the U.S. presidency, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has positioned protecting students, educators and getting schools open safely with smaller classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic as “a national emergency.” On Sept. 2, he praised educators for their “grit,” and recognized their concerns for students.

Biden’s praise reflects his kindergarten to Grade 12 education plan, which calls on the federal government to “provide educators the support and respect they need and deserve” to and “start investing in our children at birth.”

U.S. Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden’s education plan.

In both tone and content, Biden’s plan represents an evolution in the focus of American education policy and a departure from recent commitments of Democratic and Republican parties emphasizing school accountability through testing and expanding publicly funded, privately operated charter schools.

Read more: Charter schools: What you need to know about their anticipated growth in Alberta

In Canada, the challenges of reopening schools during COVID-19 have prompted suggestions that it’s time to think about “school choice” through charter schools or through school voucher programs. Voucher programs provide parents with government grants, normally taken out of the general public school budget, that they can use for tuition at a private school.

As I have argued, Canadians should not ignore American experiences of expanding such kinds of schooling.

Heavier federal role

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks at the Phoenix International Academy, a charter school, in Phoenix, Oct. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt York)

In the U.S., states are primarily responsible for education policy. But the federal secretary of education establishes policies on federal financial aid for education and distributes and monitors related funds, as well as collecting data, disseminating research and ensuring schools from pre-kindergarten to post-graduate institutions “comply with federal … laws governing funding and discrimination.” The federal government began to play a role in kindergarten to Grade 12 education with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965.

The act provided federal funding to states to support school districts with concentrations of poor students. The ESEA has to be reauthorized every five years, and subsequent presidents have expanded its scope through changes: for instance, to provide resources for educating students with disabilities or to address perceived challenges like gaps in student achievement.

In the late 1980s, concerns over student achievement led to the emergence of an education reform movement. This movement emphasized standardized testing to hold schools accountable when students didn’t make adequate academic progress and the expansion of school choice through publicly funded, privately operated charter schools.

Fractures in U.S. ‘education reform’

Support for education reform was bipartisan in the U.S. Beginning in 1988, presidents used reauthorizations of the ESEA to emphasize greater accountability. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama went farthest to mandate testing and support charter schools.

Since the late ‘80s, presidents have been careful not to explicitly attack the teaching profession. But some state and local politicians (particularly Republicans) were quick to place the blame for so-called failing schools on teachers’ unions. Some media then followed suit, focusing coverage on “bad teachers.” This dismissal of professional educators’ expertise, combined with cuts to education budgets, created openings for philanthropists to influence policy.

People carrying placards.
Teachers, parents and students line up to protest for higher school funding and teacher pay in April 2018 in Phoenix before a teacher strike. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

In the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, Biden and other candidates distanced themselves from education reform priorities and called for renewed investment in public education after decades of austerity.

My research into their platforms shows explicit support for raising teachers’ salaries, collective bargaining and equitable educational opportunities for all students.

Biden and many Democratic candidates have close personal connections to public education: Jill Biden, for example, has a doctorate in education and teaches at a community college. But the shift among Democrats is also a response to the rise of education activism in the U.S. over the past decade, led by a more militant teachers’ union movement. It’s had some success refocusing public attention on what students and teachers need to succeed.

A decade of education activism

The Chicago Teachers’ Union’s (CTU) three-week strike in 2012 was a watershed moment. The CTU developed a bargaining platform, “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve,” focused on student needs for a well-rounded curriculum, support services and fully funded schools.

To generate support for the platform and a possible strike, CTU leadership organized members and built relationships with parents, neighbourhood organizations and faith groups. Other teachers’ unions adopted CTU’s method of focusing demands on how schools ought to care for the whole student.

After the CTU strike, the movement against high-stakes standardized testing gained momentum. Critics drew attention to instructional time lost to testing, how testing narrowed the academic curriculum and problems using test scores to evaluate teachers and schools.

Moratorium on expanding charter schools

A man in a suit at a microphone.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called for a moratorium on expanding charter schools in 2016. Derrick Johnson, NAACP president, at a Boston news conference, Dec. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

In 2016, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools until they were subject to the same regulations as traditional public schools. Despite criticism for this stance voiced by some education advocates in Black communities, the NAACP renewed this call in 2017.

Teachers’ activism reached a high point in 2018, when over 375,000 educators took part in work stoppages. Teachers went on strike in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina.

With broad public support, they demanded restoring funding to reverse declining wages and student resources and cuts to curriculum. When United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) went on strike in 2019 for “The Schools L.A. Children Deserve,” a major concern was the impact of charter schools on funding for traditional public school schools.

Among UTLA’s supporters were Senators Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — all eventual contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Why Canadians should care

Expanding charter schools and school vouchers, along with pressuring schools to accelerate standardized testing haven’t been a silver bullet for fixing problems in American public schools.

Rather, they contributed to the rise of a robust movement of educators, teachers’ unions and community and political allies who support a well-resourced public school system that both meets the needs of diverse students and values educators as professionals.

Read more: School funding is needed for student well-being, not only coronavirus safety rules

Canada has a long history of teachers’ union activism. Teachers in British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Ontario have engaged in job actions since 2014.

As COVID-19 pressures provinces to re-think schooling, and as teachers’ unions continue to underscore the perils of underfunding for both teacher and student health and wellness, we should watch to see if the activism of Canadian educators and allies becomes even more dynamic.

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