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Educators carry momentum of 2019 into critical election year

By Amanda Menas

Educator-activists are starting out 2020 with the wind at their backs, coming off a year of impressive policy wins and the election of many pro-public education candidates.

Educator walkouts in early 2019 pushed state legislatures to increase funding for public schools to lower class sizes and add counselors in response to the rising mental health epidemic.

Throughout 2019, educators also fought against policies led by Betsy DeVos intending to intimidate and harass our LGBTQ+ students and rallied behind students of color, unified in their belief that all students deserve an amazing public school regardless of where they or their families are from. One of the biggest wins of the year was the full repeal of the 40 percent excise tax on “high cost” employer-sponsored health plans scheduled to take effect in 2022. In all, NEA members made nearly 900,000 contacts to Congress about legislation affecting students, public education, workers’ rights, and other important issues.

2020 has started off strong with educators in Florida rallying against systemic de-funding of the state’s education system. The rally saw nearly 20,000 educators from across the state join together at the Capitol building even though their superintendents and the Florida Department of Education threatened their teaching licenses and their unions.

The momentum that brought educators together in the first month of the new year came from the hard work of thousands of educators in the previous year speaking out for their students, schools, and communities.

Due to educators’ grassroots campaigns, hours knocking on doors, and late nights on phone calls with constituents, “We are pleased to see positive signs of more bipartisan support of bills that strengthen public education and improve the lives of our students, their families, and communities,” said Marc Egan, NEA director of government relations.

Here is a look back at the highlights from 2019:

Educators worked for federal investments in students

Educators rallied in Virginia
Educators rallied in Virginia

In 2019, the House of Representatives passed groundbreaking education funding legislation. Due to educator advocacy and grass-roots campaigning, lawmakers voted to increase the amount given to Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) annually by $450-million and $410-million each. The federal share of IDEA funding last year was just 14.6 percent, the lowest level since 2001, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asked for no increases to either program–but NEA members fought back and won.

NEA also lobbied to ensure protections for all students, regardless of immigration status or zip code. With the upcoming 2020 Census, hard-to-count populations include some of our most vulnerable families: recent immigrants or English language learners; those without financial stability and stable housing; and children in shared custody arrangements, or those being raised by someone other than their parents.

In the FY 2020 Funding Bill, educators made sure their legislators included $7.6 billion to the Census Bureau to ensure all people are counted in the 2020 Census. Additionally, NEA advocacy efforts worked to increase funding for English-learning acquisition and Head Start, and permanently funded HBCUs and MSIs.

Another federal policy win from 2019: NEA successfully lobbied the Education and Labor Committee to expand eligibility for Public Student Loan Forgiveness to include adjunct and contingent faculty—a huge victory.

NEA fought Betsy DeVos’s anti-public education policies

Educators rallied in Maryland
Educators rallied in Maryland

Sometimes, the best offense is a good defense. For educators facing hostile state legislatures and national funding cuts, the NEA worked hard to ensure efforts by President Trump and Betsy DeVos failed. Where DeVos proposed a plan to expand federal funding for private-school vouchers, Congress rejected her efforts time and time again. DeVos’ proposal, said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, is just the “latest attempt to push an agenda that is academically ineffective, fiscally irresponsible and that funds discrimination at the expense of student opportunity.”

Educators in Kentucky helped defeat several bills that would negatively affect public schools, including the proposed tax-credit voucher program that the Kentucky Education Association called, “Nothing but a back door voucher system to undermine public education.” In a critical victory for members in Arkansas, a voucher expansion bill, which would have established a multi-million dollar voucher scheme to divert funds to private schools through the tax code, was defeated.

Educators in West Virginia rallied against the Student Succeeds Act which proposed an unlimited number of charter schools and diverts public dollars toward voucher programs. When the bill eventually passed, they refused to be silenced and took their efforts to the voting booth in November, and will continue to fight as the battle continues to the Supreme Court.

Community schools spiked across the country

Educators rallied in Kentucky
Educators rallied in Kentucky.

From Virginia to Colorado, legislatures acted to approve funding for community schools that provide wrap-around services to students and communities. Governor Jared Polis signed legislation making community schools an option for all school districts in Colorado, a step toward decreasing inequity in his state and protecting public education from the control of national for-profit companies. NEA-federal advocacy efforts also ensured that Congress would increase funding for full-service community schools to $25 million, 43 percent higher than last year’s funding level.

As schools create new spaces to support their surrounding communities, they also see the areas where their infrastructure is failing. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the condition of America’s 100,000 public school buildings an overall grade of D+, and public schools are constantly the largest spenders of infrastructure dollars. The average public school building is 44 years old. In 2020, the national legislature will debate whether or not to include schools in the Federal Infrastructure Bill.

While educators rallied to ensure every student has a great public school in their neighborhood, funding for over 4,400 schools in 770 rural counties located near national forests wavered as the Secure Rural Schools Act expired in 2018. Due to NEA efforts, the bill was extended and will aid many facing budgetary shortfalls to their public education system.

Gun violence recognized as a public health issue

Educators rallied in Florida early 2020.

For the first time since 1996,  Congress funded $25-million worth of research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to study gun violence as a public health issue. Arming educators – a dangerous and reckless idea overwhelmingly opposed by educators – gained traction among state lawmakers after President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos endorsed the idea soon after the Parkland shooting. During her confirmation hearing, DeVos also expressed her interest in having guns in classrooms in case of a “potential grizzly”.

Educators also highlighted the mental health crisis as a major priority at the bargaining table in 2019. With the suicide rate tripling among children aged 10 to 14,  educators and their unions are responding. This fall, NEA-Rhode Island brought together hundreds of educators for their second mental-health summit. Meanwhile, the St. Paul Federal of Teachers (SPFT) in Minnesota has made the mental-health needs of students their number-one issue at the bargaining table with a contract proposal that calls for every school to have a mental health team that includes certified social workers, psychologists, nurses, and education support professionals.

The fight for increased state funding continued

Legislators acknowledged the tremendous sacrifices educators make when they spend their own money on classroom supplies for students in need and quadrupled the annual educator tax deduction from $250 to $1000, a big win of 2019. In Idaho, Republican Gov. Brad Little signed into law a pay increase that lifts the minimum salary of educators to $40,000 by the end of the 2021-22 school year and highlighted education as a top priority during his State of the State Address. Virginia educators saw a 5 percent teacher salary raise pass the state legislature after they rallied in January. New Mexico‘s legislators also increased the minimum teacher salary to $41,000 and raised salaries for all public school employees by an average of 10 percent in order to recruit and retain high-quality educators.

Education Support Professionals in Illinois, including food service employees and custodial staff, received increase pay as well. Educators helped pass legislation that will increase the minimum wage from $8.25 to $15.00 per hour by 2025. The minimum teacher salary will also increase to $40,000 that same year.

Educators who work on Department of Defense schools stateside and overseas were other big winners in 2019, advocating for and receiving a 3.1 percent pay raise, 12 weeks of paid parental leave, and retroactive repeal of a bad flaw in the 2017 GOP tax scam bill that taxed moving expenses of DoD school employees.

Looking forward, educators will pressure the Senate to stop holding up important legislation like the Voting Rights Advancement Act passed by the House. Educators will keep up the momentum leading into the 2020 election. To support their students, families, and communities, they will continue to advocate for legislation such as the Higher Education Act and the Educator Tax Deduction. The College Affordability Act (H.R. 4674), which NEA supports, has already cleared the House Education and Labor Committee and is headed to the floor.

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