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Here’s What Happened When AFT and NEA Locked Out Black and Brown Parents from a Candidate Forum

Over the weekend the AFT/NEA sponsored a “Public Education Forum” in Pittsburgh. There, hand-selected union members heard from seven Democratic presidential candidates as one by one they pledged their troth, promising to starve alternative public schools and increase funding for traditional schools in exchange for teacher union money and endorsement.

At the same time as the candidates were courting union lobbyists, over 250 parents, mostly Black and Brown mothers and grandmothers, gathered in a hotel down the street (paid for by a GoFundMe campaign) to plead with candidates to stop by and listen to why the union’s position was untenable for their children and grandchildren, why waiting, as Elizabeth Warren suggested during her plea for cash, until “every public school was an excellent public school,” didn’t cut the mustard. Their children and grandchildren are in school NOW. They need good schools NOW.

Meet the #PowerfulParentNetwork.

The plan was to ask the candidates — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer, Mike Bennett — to walk down the block and listen to why AFT/NEA’s opposition to school choice hurts their children. Only Michael Bennet — clearly not in any danger of union endorsements—showed up.

Let’s think about the optics here, which is a rare instance of when it’s fair to judge a book by its cover. The candidates on the stage were all white. (Cory Booker had the flu, or maybe he didn’t want to waste his time.) So were most of the audience (who showed up — word is there were empty seats). The #PowerfulParentNetwork is diverse, mostly Black and Brown. They tried to get tickets to the AFT/NEA event but were locked out, just like they’ve been locked out of high-quality schools.

Judge this book by its cover:

With none of the major candidates willing to walk down the block to listen to Black and Brown parents and grandparents, the #PowerfulParentNetwork, on that cold, rainy day, headed down the street to the Pittsburgh Convention Center to try to speak to their Party’s candidates.

But they were locked out by security guards and police.

Here’s who wasn’t locked out:

While they were ignored by the unions and the majority of the candidates, these warriors are not giving up.

They know their numbers are growing, especially among parents of color, and they remain committed to this cause of social and educational justice:

They’re not willing to wait, as Warren suggested, for “all public schools to be excellent public schools.”

I don’t know why NEA/AFT — let alone the aspiring nominees — think that ignoring Black and Brown parents who comprise an essential portion of the Democratic base is a sound political strategy or even a defensible ethical stance. Here’s what I do know: I’ve never been so disappointed in my Party. I’ve never been so proud to call members of the #PowerfulParentNetwork my friends. And I maintain hope that Democratic leaders will see past the the lure of union dollars and look squarely at the faces of Sarah Carpenter, Vesia Hawkins, Gwen Samuels, Sharif El-Mekki, and all the members of this growing movement.

That’s got to be worth more than a bucket of cash from a group of blind charlatans, right?

What Do You Think?
Laura Waters
Laura Waters was weaned on education and equity issues. Her mom was a social worker and her dad was a social studies teacher in New York City public schools. She can no more get this passion out of her blood than she can her New York accent, even though she has lived in Central Jersey now for over 25 years. She and her husband have four children, and her youngest has multiple disabilities. Laura was on her local school board for 12 years and served nine years as president. She keeps education leaders on their toes at the blog 'NJ Left Behind.'

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