The fate of American democracy, whether it holds fast or crumbles, depends upon an educated citizenry, NEA Executive Director Kim Anderson told NEA Representative Assembly delegates on Thursday.
“Our democracy is the foundation of a society which is supposed to value equal voice, respect for all, and the dignity of spirited but civil discourse,” said Anderson. “And where do we learn to put those values into action? In our schools and on our campuses.
“In other words, the answer to a weakened democracy is a strong, just system of public education. And it’s our job, as members of this union, to fight for it.”
This has always been NEA’s work
Anderson addressed delegates on Thursday during the 2021 Virtual Representative Assembly, the union’s 100th Representative Assembly. Fifty-five years ago, Anderson noted, delegates helped merge NEA with the American Teachers Association, an association of Black educators, creating a new multi-racial coalition.
Through the years, NEA members have marched for civil rights, fought for equity in education, and more. “We’ve helped protect, improve, and expand our democracy and our public education system when our country needed it most,” she said.
Today, that need is here and now.
Consider the new limits on voters by state legislatures in Florida, Georgia and elsewhere, aiming at restricting the rights of all Americans to have a voice in their government. Think about how “foreign adversaries” have interfered in the integrity of our elections—without consequence, Anderson urged.
Thirty percent of Americans believe the presidential election was stolen, Anderson pointed out, even though it was certified by bipartisan election officials in every state.
“The structural erosion of our democracy is real. And it’s happened right before our eyes,” Anderson told delegates.
The answer is you—and your union
The answer—the only hope—to countering the dismantling of American democracy is the work of educators, Anderson told delegates. “With every fiber of my being, it is increasingly clear that you—our nation’s educators—must be the ones to save our democracy through a world-class public education system.”
This is why NEA is investing in community schools that are designed to support the whole student.
“Put simply, a community school constantly seeks a more perfect education for its students,” said Anderson. “And that means its students are more likely to seek a more perfect union.”
This is also why NEA is investing in union-led professional practice and career supports. “We call our model ‘by members, for members,’” said Anderson. And it’s also why the union and its members are leaning into racial and social justice, “in and out of our workplaces, with an acumen and intensity that this moment calls for,” she said.
As an increasing number of state legislatures ban the teaching of America’s history of racism and sexism, NEA’s commitment to social justice—and good teaching—is more important than ever. “Facts, critical thinking, respectful discussion…that’s democracy in our schools and lecture halls,” she said.
There are difficult battles ahead, but NEA members have shown their mettle and their ability to win, Anderson added. Recent funding victories in Arizona and Minnesota, the defeats of voucher bills in Kansas and South Dakota, the overturning of a collective-bargaining ban in Virginia, and more: “It’s our votes and our organizing that make change happen,” Anderson told RA delegates.
“We absolutely helped carry President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to victory,” she said, pointing out the 233,000 NEA volunteers who helped get out the vote in 2020.
Anderson also mentioned President Bident’s historic investment in schools through the American Rescue Plan and highlighted that this week, the NEA Board of Directors established a $10 million grant fund to help NEA state affiliates implement the American Rescue Plan.
With all of this work, NEA members will continue to uphold public education and democratic values, Anderson promised. “Time and again, we’ve shown that when our students need us, when our fellow members need us, when our democracy needs us—we answer the call,” she promised. “Let’s demonstrate the power of a union that believes in democracy and believes in public education.”