By Cynthia McCabe
CHICAGO — Unions are the ones fighting for the middle class and the National Education Association especially is fighting to ensure all students have access to a quality public school, Vice President Joe Biden told thousands of cheering educators Sunday in a stirring speech to NEA’s 90th Representative Assembly.
“Thank God for your unyielding belief that in the toughest of circumstances every child, every child, deserves a chance,” Biden told the audience of nearly 9,000 people. “I just wish those folks who are attacking you now, I wish those folks who are trying to ascribe to you the blame for the worst recession America has had since the Great Depression knew you a little better.”
NEA members’ fight for their rights as workers, is “about our children,” Biden said. “Your fight is about giving them the best chance.” He later added, “because of you the American dream will grow faster and further than ever before.”
In states across the nation, public school educators and their fellow public employees have come under attack from Republican governors and state legislators. Efforts to curb workers’ rights to collectively bargain their contracts, have a say in students’ learning conditions and get the benefits that they’ve earned during their careers have come from legislators in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Idaho, Tennessee, and just about every other Republican-led state in the country.
Educators in the past year have had to simultaneously rally for their rights and provide a quality public education for every student who enters into their classroom.
“We should be listening to you, not lecturing to you!” Biden said, drawing a standing ovation. “We should be embracing you, not pushing you aside! You are not the problem!”
Biden quoted another leader — NEA President Dennis Van Roekel — from Van Roekel’s keynote address to the delegates Saturday, in saying that whether we as a society provide what is needed for all children to have a quality education is, “the most fundamental question we need to be asking as a people today.”
He said the crux of the fight for public school students, their families and the middle class is, “about social equality, economic opportunity, concentration of wealth, about the belief in the possibility of every child in America.”
That includes not only core curriculum classes, but also the arts, athletics, higher education financial aid and pre-kindergarten program funding, he said.
Biden had harsh criticism for corporate interests and the legislators they back who attack those educators, the poor, and the American worker. He called the attacks on public workers and attempts to blame them for budget shortfalls, “one of the biggest scams in modern American history.”
In his introduction, Van Roekel applauded Biden for understanding that “putting Americans back to work is the greatest priority of our nation right now.”
“The middle class needs more leaders like Vice President Biden,” said Van Roekel. “He knows that the key to economic prosperity for all is a vibrant middle class, and without organized labor, the middle class will not grow and thrive.”
He acknowledged that the Obama Administration and public school educators have at times disagreed in recent years on the best path forward in school reform, but he added, “not all of it are you wrong about,” drawing applause from the delegates.
But, Biden said, the Obama Administration, “stands for education and it stands with labor.”
Biden drew laughter and smiles from the audience when he opened by referencing his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, saying, “My name is Joe Biden and I’m in love with an educator! And I’m in love with education!”
Quality public education is an important topic in the Biden household. Dr. Biden is a former high school English teacher and reading specialist. She is an NEA member and currently an education advocate and adjunct professor at a community college in the Washington, D.C., area.
Inspired by Vice President Biden’s call to action? Sign up now at EducationVotes to get involved in the fight for public education and the American worker! You will be a key member of the team in the 2011 and 2012 campaigns.
Featured photo and top: Scott Iskowitz/NEA. Bottom photo: Calvin Knight/NEA