By Amanda Litvinov
Soon, voters will have their say about who will lead the nation. The choice in election 2020 is stark: We either face four more years of chaos and division under the Donald Trump administration or seize the opportunity to invest in public schools and build a more equitable society under a Joe Biden administration.
Turmoil and the erosion of civil rights have been the hallmarks of Trump’s presidency. Trump signed off on family separations at the border and used tear gas on American citizens engaged in peaceful protest. His secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has had his full support in seeking to strip resources from public schools and funnel them into private and religious schools.
Then, Trump and DeVos used the pandemic to try to force voucher schemes into COVID-19 relief bills.
Educators can help close out this painful chapter in America’s history. One in every 39 voters is from an NEA household, according to the most recent available data. That’s why it’s critical that educators not only vote, but talk to family and others in their networks about what’s really at stake: the future of public schools and the well-being of working people whether white, Black, or brown. The NEA members profiled here discuss why this is the election of a lifetime for educators and for our nation.
Turquoise LeJeune Parker
An educator, community activist, and vice president of her local union, Turquoise LeJeune Parker seized a rare opportunity this summer: She asked presidential candidate Joe Biden what he would do to help dismantle institutional racism in America.
Parker is one of thousands of educators who submitted questions for the presidential candidates throughout this election cycle—and one of only three NEA members who got to ask her question during Biden’s live appearance at the virtual Representative Assembly on July 3.
Parker says she “had a duty to bring up racial and social justice with someone who is vying for a position that can actually bring about systemic change.”
It’s easy for some to overlook the impact of racism on education. But it’s impossible for Parker to forget. At her school, 98 percent of students are from low-income families, and 95 percent are Hispanic or Black.
“We have to realize the reason we don’t have enough teachers and education support professionals and all the resources … our students need. Our system was set up this way, with racism and classism baked in,” Parker says.
So what would Joe Biden do about it? His education plan begins with helping to equalize opportunity through public education by tripling funding for Title I, the federal program that provides resources for schools serving large populations of low-income families.
Biden wants universal preK, more diversity in the teaching profession, student debt relief, and more funding for historically Black colleges and universities. He also told Parker that teachers should have more say in the curriculum.
That struck a chord. Too often, what students learn at school just furthers the system, Parker says. “All of us have a responsibility to stop teaching students to be complicit in a very broken racist system … . If we can acknowledge how the system works, we can dismantle it and build something anti-racist and better.”
Wallace Darbous has a lot of reasons why he is supporting Biden for president. But the thing he keeps coming back to is that Biden cares about working people and is a strong supporter of labor unions. It matters for educators and for the students who attend our public schools.
“Every family deserves a living wage and health care. Every worker should be compensated decently for hard work and have dignity in the workplace,” Darbous says. “When families have enough money to know there’s going to be food on the table, plus health care if someone needs it, and time to spend together, then kids aren’t living in these stressful conditions that can affect their entire lives.”
Darbous has worked at Donaldson Elementary in Oakdale for eight years. Prior to that, he worked in maintenance at the Pittsburgh airport, where staff lost union rights after a new airport opened in 1992. “It was ugly,” Darbous recalls. “I went from being treated with respect to being treated like an animal.”
Biden has long said that unions helped build America’s middle class. As president, he plans to make it easier for all workers to unionize and supports educators being able to bargain for better pay and benefits in addition to having a voice in decisions that affect their students.
Although President Trump made overtures to labor unions during his first presidential campaign, his record shows he supports weakening unions and rolling back worker safety. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been consistently hostile toward educator unions during her time in office.
“You know, we take our unions for granted, that they will always be there to speak up and make a difference,” Darbous says. “But we can’t keep electing people who try to chip away at them if we want to have protections and have a voice.”
Certain things Joe Biden says really resonate with Rachel Sandoval. Chief among them is that the U.S. secretary of education should be someone who has experience teaching in a public school classroom.
“DeVos has no business being in charge of education,” Sandoval says. “Her biggest goal is to take money out of public schools and get it into private and religious schools, which is just going to keep growing the inequities between our lower-income and wealthier, whiter families.”
“Joe Biden has promised to put a teacher in that position, and I’m going to hold him to it.”
There’s an even more personal reason she supports Joe Biden. She fully agrees with him when he says that we’re in a battle for the soul of this nation.
“There is absolutely no way our country can withstand another four years of Number 45,” says Sandoval, referring to Trump, the 45th U.S. president. “Our public schools are grossly underfunded, and, even in the pandemic, the Trump administration isn’t pushing for what we need.”
“It’s been chaotic and scary and emotionally draining worrying about our students and our own families,” she says.
“Just look at how white nationalists have been emboldened because they seem to have the president’s backing,” she says. “I’ve never felt more fearful as a Mexican woman to walk down the street than I am now.”
The country hasn’t yet lived up to the ideals it was founded on—but to give up on that promise now is unthinkable. As a girl, Sandoval worked in the strawberry fields of California alongside her father, an immigrant from Mexico. She still remembers the screams and seeing people run when the federal immigration agents’ truck would roll up. Today, her school has a support group for K–5 students who are missing family members who were deported or fled the country.
We can stop this particular form of childhood trauma by ending Trump’s cruel family separation and detention policies and establishing a path to citizenship, as Joe Biden has proposed.
“It’s not enough for us to only vote and hope that things will change for the better,” says Sandoval. “Every single election matters, from the school board to the United States president, and we should all be out there making sure everyone we know has a way to cast a ballot.”
Make sure your voice is heard in election 2020. Make a plan to vote.