David Hecker: We can debate issues, but public education shouldn’t be a political war zone

September 19, 2022 12:08 pm

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As a union representing educators, we have a vested interest in public policy, and therefore politics. And as a union, AFT Michigan has received our fair share of criticism from people who believe politics do not belong in education. 

At best, the claims that we should keep education and politics separate are somewhat misguided. At worst, they’re an effort to silence educators, staff, and advocates who speak up about issues within our public education system and defend the right to safe, honest education.

First off, we cannot ignore the truth that public education is shaped by elected officials at multiple levels of government, as it should be — it’s a public good, and it’s critical that the public have a say. These necessary functions — and the individual actions that shape them, like voting and debating concrete research-based policies — are one thing. To borrow from the great John Lewis, this is “good political action.” This is the kind of political action that belongs in public education, the kind of political action we engage with.

Unfortunately, K-12 education and higher education have become politicized to a degree that is toxic and even dangerous. And, ironically, some of the strongest critics of “politics in the classroom” are the same people who have turned public education into a political war zone in numerous ways.

Republican elected officials and right-wing agitators have sprung into action to oppose safe, honest education and inclusive classrooms. From attempts to demonize and isolate trans kids to “don’t say gay” bills that stifle LGBTQ+ kids’ and adults’ ability to be their authentic selves to efforts to censor discussions of race in the classroom, we are facing a massive threat to marginalized people’s safety in schools and an attempt to provide a dishonest education. 

These attacks do not belong in our schools and in education policy discussions.

Similar debates have surfaced over the past decade about colleges and universities, where conservatives who dislike challenges to their worldview and believe they should be allowed to engage in hate speech without consequences or backlash from their peers complain they’re being censored or students are being indoctrinated, without any evidence that these claims are true. 

Unfortunately, K-12 education and higher education have become politicized to a degree that is toxic and even dangerous. And, ironically, some of the strongest critics of 'politics in the classroom' are the same people who have turned public education into a political war zone in numerous ways.

– David Hecker

In our recent past, before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was elected, we witnessed numerous state-level attacks on those who educate our students. When the Republican Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder eliminated the right of educators to bargain topics that directly affect their students and their livelihoods, passed “Right to Work” and made it much more difficult for K-12 educators to pay dues, they were politicizing education — in a manner detrimental to our students and educators — for the sake of their anti-labor agenda.

Slashing K-12 and university funding and raising taxes on low income families and retirees to give businesses a tax break at the expense of school funding is another form of political action that was detrimental to public education and our communities. And that is exactly what Snyder and the Republican Legislature did in his first budget.

The COVID-19 pandemic also saw an uptick in action from right-wing agitators who opposed common-sense solutions like temporary remote schooling and mandating masks in the classroom to disrupt school communities and viciously attack educators and staff who were simply doing their best to keep everyone safe from a deadly illness. 

I want to emphasize that many of those behind recent right-wing efforts have not contained their activity to lobbying and participating in elections. Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen numerous instances of people harassing individual teachers, making false claims about what’s being taught in schools, and complaining that books that don’t support their right-wing agenda should be banned from school libraries. 

These tactics are well over the line of what’s appropriate when it comes to advocacy and activism around education, and they seem to have become more and more common as Republican officials continue to eagerly fan the flames of racism, homophobia and transphobia.

So, while I agree that in a perfect world elected officials would do their jobs well and educators and students could just focus on learning, that isn’t the reality we live in today. As long as right-wing officials and activists continue to sow fear and hate in our school communities, attack educators and work to undermine our democracy, we have no choice but to push back and fight for honest education in safe school environments.

To those on the right who complain about politics in education, I offer a challenge: Stick to “good political action” like voting, sincere debates on research-based policies, and working to help elect candidates through thoughtful discussions with voters. If you don’t want politics that are detrimental to education, stop using schools as a vehicle for racist, anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-science agendas. Fully and equitably fund our schools, allow educators to do their jobs in peace, and we can foster better, less contentious policy discussions and school communities together.

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David Hecker
David Hecker

David Hecker was the president of AFT Michigan. Previously, he was secretary-treasurer of the state federation. A member of the AFT executive committee, Hecker was first elected as an AFT vice president in 2004.