By Amanda Litvinov
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Loretta Harper knows that some of the students at the Las Vegas high school where she serves as a guidance counselor struggle to learn simply because they don’t have enough to eat.
Those were the students she thought about Tuesday when presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton addressed the 7,500 educators at the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly in Washington, D.C., Tuesday.
“When Hillary Clinton said that she’s with us, it’s because she’s listening to what educators are telling her,” Harper told Education Votes. “And educators are talking to her about all the things that stand in the way of our kids’ learning.”
Clinton acknowledged in her remarks that too many of America’s students are facing barriers to learning that we must address as a nation, both within and outside of our public schools:
“You see students coming to school hungry, or exhausted from a long night at a shelter. So many kids have the weight of the world on their little shoulders. We need to tackle all the problems holding our kids back—and we need to do it together, as one American community.”
Clinton then called for the creation of more community schools where districts partner with social services and non-profits to provide supports and services kids need to be school ready. Those supports range from tutoring to food assistance to medical and mental health care.
Harper says she would love to see more students across the country — 51 percent of whom are now living in poverty—served by community schools. Desert Pines High School, where she teaches, has had wraparound services for the past two years.
“We’ve been able to provide immediate help when we identify a student as homeless,” she said. “We can prevent them from going hungry, and getting so overwhelmed by hardship that they leave school. If more students were in community schools, more kids could graduate and go on to do incredible things.”
Clinton’s remarks about the need to make college accessible to more hard-working students resonated with NEA student member Desiree Brown.
“It gives hope to students, that if they pursue higher education they won’t be overwhelmed by debt,” said Brown, who graduated in May from East Stroudsburg University. “I live at home with my parents and I don’t have a car, but I’m still really stressed about my $32,000 of student loan debt.”
Clinton said that everyone should be able to refinance student loans to make payments more manageable, and that those who go into public service fields like teaching should have their debt forgiven if they work in that field for 10 years.
“Loan forgiveness would be beneficial to us, and it also would help students because it reduces our own personal stress so we can focus on our work,” Brown said. “I’m trying to figure out how I will pay back $32,000 in student loans. I live with my parents. I don’t have a car. But I’m already stressed about the debt I have.”
Like Brown, nearly 40 million Americans are mired in student loan debt, which has doubled over the last decade and now exceeds $1.2 trillion dollars.
The day after her address at the RA, where educators voted to support Clinton for president 84 percent to 16 percent, she announced new provisions to her debt-free college plan which, if she is elected, will help borrowers like Brown. During a three-month moratorium on federal loan payments, borrowers would receive assistance in consolidating loans or enrolling in income-based repayment plans.
“I was so inspired to hear her speak,” said Brown. “I admit I teared up, but it confirmed for me why I am in this profession.”
Tulsa, Okla., drama and speech teacher Shawna Mott-Wright was also moved by what she heard.
“She got my attention right off the bat when she said, ‘I’m with you,’ and promised to listen to us when it comes to decisions about education,” Mott-Wright said.
She was also pleased when Clinton acknowledged that some schools simply don’t have the resources they need, and that the federal government should do its part by fully funding federal education programs, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
“It’s incredibly frustrating that we’re always expected to do more with less,” said Mott-Wright. “We’ve been doing it for years, and we’re good at it, but that doesn’t make it okay. It’s wrong to shortchange our kids.”
She said it’s when bad education policies and education cuts hurt students that educators “become mama bears and papa bears, and fight back to defend our kids.”
Mott-Wright, Brown, and Harper are all engaged in the 2016 presidential election, hoping to make a positive difference for their students and communities by helping to elect Clinton.
“I am going to do everything I can to make sure she is our next president,” said Harper. “Health care, immigration, college affordability — educators cannot sit this one out with so much at stake.”