Most families of children you educate aren’t any better off than families I knew back when I was last a Principal in 1997. This truth rushed in on me last month at the AFL-CIO national convention in L.A. Whether it was economist and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stieglitz or U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren addressing us, part of the message was: income inequality has soared in this country since the ’70s, no matter how much harder the middle and working classes are toiling. That includes you and me, by the way, although our situations are far better than most.
Driving home this reality was AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka. He reminded us that the wealthiest Americans have recovered, even profited from the Great Recession. The rest have seen almost no income growth, and many are far worse off than ever before. When you see some parents who show up at your school, you realize they’re working multiple jobs or living in shame with no job. You wonder if your first obligation is to educate their children or feed them.
Resolutions put forward at the AFL-CIO convention were intended to broaden the union tent by fighting for labor laws that address needs of all workers, not just unionists, and to help them organize. Not an easy lift for Mr. Trumka. Some of these folks were concerned that if others get more, they will get less. But apparently even more were concerned that if others slip out of the middle class, they eventually will, too. The resolutions passed.
This broadening of the tent struck me as relevant to us here in NYC where housing, education and health care are taking a beating. For the families of the majority of our students, it’s becoming harder to live decently here. In the long run, it will make our jobs easier and our humanity deeper if we help get these families under the tent of the middle class and keep them there.
Every day, we see students slipping out from under the education tent. Poverty, unaddressed illness, lack of supervision at home and immigration status are part of the mix. We have so many kids who won’t make it to high school graduation, let alone to college, that they’re likely never to join the middle class.
Blessed with union protections, let’s vow to help all of our students. We can’t fight the battle of public education ourselves. No, we also have to stand up for social and economic reform. We should be standing with food-service workers and car washers as they ask Albany to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour and we should be standing with them in their struggle to unionize. Big businesses would have you believe that kids hold these jobs for extra bucks. The fact is the average age of these employees is 35. Many of them are the parents of the students you’re trying to educate.
A s educators, we know a lot about this and also what transpires when our children are with us from kindergarten through 12th grade. So I think it’s worth turning our attention to what happens before they reach us and after they leave us. For children in poverty, it starts with universal pre-K. Everyone likes President Obama’s ideas for pre-K, but they’ll remain a fantasy unless you do everything you can to reach elected officials. As educators, you know that our poorest children reach kindergarten already struggling to catch up.
Fast forward to our disadvantaged students who have a chance to go to college. As recently as July, Congress killed bills that would have prevented interest rates on subsidized student loans from doubling again. Young people without family money increasingly shy away from higher education for fear of insurmountable debt. As their champions, we need to put tremendous pressure on elected officials in D.C. to at least put a cap on federal interest rates, and preferably to reduce them.
We have families with no rights at all. A living wage, pre-school, health care, affordable housing and college aid are beyond their grasp. They are illegal immigrants who dare not fill out forms that allow their children federal free lunch or permission to get medical care in emergencies. The time for us to rally our communities behind immigration reform, including passage of the Dream Act, is now.
At the AFL-CIO meeting in LA, I remembered that as educators we serve our country by serving its children. We do it not for money, but because we hold the kids close to our hearts. “We are a small part of the 150 million Americans who work for a living,” Mr. Trumka reminded union members. “We cannot win economic justice only for ourselves … It would not be right and it’s not possible. All working people will rise together, or we will keep falling together.”