by Félix Pérez
First Lady Michelle Obama led the way at last night’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., joined by other high-profile speakers in peppering their remarks with praise for the importance of educators and emphasizing the central place of education in their own achievements and the success of students, business and the American economy.
Recalling a lesson she and her husband, President Barack Obama, learned from their parents, Michelle Obama said:
We learned about gratitude and humility — that so many people had a hand in our success, from the teachers who inspired us to the janitors who kept our school clean. And we were taught to value everyone’s contribution and treat everyone with respect.
The First Lady’s praise of school custodians contrasts sharply with dismissive comments about school bus drivers made last month by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. “I realize to get to school they’ve got to go on a bus. And the bus driver is driving the bus. But when [the student] makes the honor roll, I don’t credit the bus driver.”
While paying tribute to the “very best of the American spirit,” Obama mentioned the teachers and education support professionals from the Chester Upland School District in Pennsylvania who early this year made national news when they agreed to defer their salaries because of state budget cuts. “I’ve seen it in teachers in a near-bankrupt school district who vowed to keep teaching without pay.”
Obama spoke about college affordability, an issue weighing increasingly on students and middle class families. “When it comes to giving our kids the education they deserve, Barack knows that like me and like so many of you, he never could’ve attended college without financial aid.
“That’s why Barack has fought so hard to increase student aid and keep interest rates down, because he wants every young person to fulfill their promise and be able to attend college without a mountain of debt.”
Keynote speaker and San Antonio, Texas, Mayor Julián Castro stressed the importance of educational opportunity for all students. “[I]t starts with education. Twenty years ago, Joaquin [Julian’s twin brother] and I left home for college and then for law school. In those classrooms, we met some of the brightest folks in the world. But at the end of our days there, I couldn’t help but to think back to my classmates at Thomas Jefferson High School in San Antonio. They had the same talent, the same brains, the same dreams as the folks we sat with at Stanford and Harvard. I realized the difference wasn’t one of intelligence or drive. The difference was opportunity.”
Castro, whose wife is an elementary school teacher and who places a priority as mayor on access to early childhood education, underscored the link between education and American business. “You can’t be pro-business unless you’re pro-education,” he declared.
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick related an experience from the turnaround at Orchard Gardens Elementary School in Boston, which for years was labeled a low-performing school. After listening to a group of first-graders recite Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, he started to applaud but was stopped short.
“The teacher said, ‘Not yet.’ Then she began to ask those six- and seven-year-olds questions: ‘What, she asked, does ‘creed’ mean?’ ‘What does ‘nullification’ mean?’ ‘Where is Stone Mountain?’ And as the hands shot up, I realized that she had taught the children not just to memorize that speech but to understand it.”
Patrick said, “Those children are America’s children, too, yours and mine. And among them are the future scientists, entrepreneurs, teachers, artists, engineers, laborers and civic leaders we desperately need. For this country to rise, they must rise.”
In a nod to teachers’ unions, Patrick credited positive changes in Massachusetts public schools to negotiations with teacher representatives.