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Why Should Teachers Endorse Joe Biden?

They shouldn’t. The National Education Association (NEA) has endorsed Joe Biden. The leadership of the teachers’ union says Biden has “a deep connection to the work of educators.” A young teacher and NEA member has ten questions about that.

Daniel Werst

April 5, 2020
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William Thomas Cain / Getty Images

On March 14, the National Education Association (NEA), one of the two major U.S. teachers’ unions, endorsed Joe Biden for president. The announcement on the NEA website describes Biden as having “a deep connection to the work of educators” and touts six reasons for the endorsement. Biden, the NEA leadership claims, supports raising teacher pay, will replace Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, will “create a pathway to citizenship, starting with Dreamers,” will triple federal grant funding for students with disabilities, opposes federal money going to privately run charter schools, and will fight for racial and economic equality, beginning with universal preschool.

But the circumstances of this endorsement, and Joe Biden’s actual record, raise some serious questions.

Who voted on this decision?

In January, I started as a teacher at the Newcomer School for immigrant children, part of Indianapolis Public Schools. Our union contract is important to all of us but most of my coworkers are barely aware the union exists. In three months, I have seen a union bulletin board with pre-printed flyers, and I have met a couple pro-union workers, but I know of no actual union activity at our school. I am certain that few if any of my coworkers know about this endorsement, much less participated in the decision.

What did Biden actually do for education during the Obama administration? 

This endorsement smacks of amnesia. Obama’s policies pushed overwhelming standardized testing. The “Common Core” guidelines for what topics should be taught have not helped students. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, a key comparable test, saw no significant increase in the percentages of students with passing scores in reading and math from 2009 to 2019. Obama and Biden showed no concern about overcrowded classes that sometimes reach 38 students. Obama failed to make up for massive education funding cuts by many states. The administration did nothing to address the structural misery of oppressed students in a country where 2 of 5 people before the COVID-19 pandemic already could not handle a $400 emergency expense. 

Millions of children are crippled in school and later in life by weak early education and profound alienation. So many teenagers have told me that they come to school only because they are forced to and would like to go on strike against the process. I have worked in a high school where the majority of students are unprepared and because of that are unwilling to write a paragraph. Yet, the powers that be maintain the same failed approaches to “teaching” these students. Students are justified when they see much of the curriculum as irrelevant and worthless. The purpose of intellectual work and its relationship to real life cannot be separated from social conditions, or it emerges as dysfunction — which administrators “manage” and cover up.

Obama and Biden supported charterization, allowing charter enrollment to double from 1.5 million to 3 million students nationwide. And how can we believe Biden’s promise of universal, free public preschool is anything more than nice campaign words?

What makes the NEA leadership believe Biden’s promises for immigrants?

Last October, Movimiento Cosecha activist Carlos Roja confronted Biden at an event. Roja said he had campaigned for Obama but could not stand that “over those eight years, there were 3 million people that were deported and separated from their families.” He challenged the former vice president to admit those deportations were unjust. Instead, Biden berated Roja for criticizing his record, repeatedly sneering, “You should vote for Trump.”

Why does this endorsement whitewash the fact that Joe Biden began his Senate career by opposing school desegregation?

Biden supported legislation to put an end to busing to desegregate schools. Wilmington city schools, in his own state of Delaware, had shifted from 72 percent white students in 1954 to 83 percent Black students in 1975, while the growing suburbs around the city were 95 percent white. But at that moment, Biden called busing “an asinine concept” and voted to stop the federal government from forcing blatantly racist local governments to institute busing.

Can the man who wrote the 1994 Crime Bill, which centered on mass incarceration of Black and Brown people in particular, be counted on as a fighter for equality?

That law led to 100,000 more cops being hired, expanded use of the death penalty, took college education money away from prisoners, and paid states to impose longer prison terms. It helped expand incarceration to the point where 6.7 percent of working-age Black menone of every 15  is behind bars at any moment. Unions should not be in the business of pretending this isn’t racism.

Why would anyone brag that an incoming Democratic president would replace a Republican cabinet secretary with a nominee of his own?

Union officials are thrilled that Biden will “fire” super-privatizer Betsy DeVos. Of course, he will — she’s a Republican appointee. The question is who he will put in her place. Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan, was the head of the Chicago Public Schools.  He became infamous for supporting teacher evaluation based on standardized test scores, increasing time spent on testing, charterizing urban schools, and blaming those with very little power for all the problems in education while patting himself on the back and befriending billionaire education “reformers” Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and others. We should demand that an actual educator head the Department of Education, under workers’ and community control.

Biden has said he wants teachers to be paid fairly and competitively. However, he has not given any information on what he would consider fair. In comparison, his Democratic Party competitor Bernie Sanders called for a minimum starting teacher salary of $60,000. (This is not mentioned in the NEA statement.) That amount would mean an increase of ten to twenty thousand dollars in the pay floor of our profession. Why would vague verbal support for “fair” pay be a strong enough reason to support an endorsement?

Those questions are specific to the text of the NEA endorsement. There are plenty more questions to raise about Biden.

Shortly after the NEA endorsement, Biden’s former staffer Tara Reade came forward to say that he sexually assaulted her in 1993. What about that? Is this acceptable to union members?

Reade accused Biden last year of sexual harassment. She says she did not tell the entire story then because the assault happened with no witnesses and she reasonably feared being dismissed and vilified. Other women have complained of Biden touching or kissing them without their consent. 

After the assault, according to Reade, Biden said, “I heard you liked me … You’re nothing to me.” 

In response, rather than denying these allegations personally, Biden has trotted out two different spokeswomen — a campaign manager and a former staffer — to say they know it can’t be true because, as one put it, it is antithetical “to the man I know and worked so closely with for almost two decades.” Neither of these women have any direct factual knowledge of what actually happened. 

In the midst of the coronavirus disaster, Biden is reaffirming his complete opposition to single-payer public health care. He says, “Single payer will not solve [the crisis in treating COVID-19 patients] at all.” The NEA has affirmed, in resolution after resolution since the early 2000s, its support for universal, single-payer health care. How, then, can Biden’s position be endorsed?

Meanwhile, one study estimates that an uninsured COVID-19 patient with serious symptoms can expect to be billed as much as $73,000.

Iran is one of the countries most terribly hit by the coronavirus, with 3,452 fatalities reported. What about Biden’s position on U.S. starvation sanctions against Iran?

Nine members of Congress, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have signed a letter to the Trump administration calling on the United States to suspend its sanctions on the sale of many types of goods to Iran at least for the duration of the pandemic, so Iran can import medical supplies and other goods its people desperately need. Asked by NBC News whether he supports this call, Biden refused to give a straight yes-or-no answer. Our unions should not tolerate placing more value on the needs of U.S. imperialism than on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in Iran.

Teachers get no benefit from endorsing politicians like Joe Biden that promise pie in the sky. Endorsements that evade all the issues are an insult to rank-and-file teachers. We need our own politics. We need to look honestly and realistically at candidates. It’s time to stop deferring to our masters and their political mouthpieces. Our goal should be for working people to control the society we live in. And we will advance when we grapple with the facts in our union, not when facts are kept quiet.

Teachers have already taught lessons about class struggle. We’ve been on strike in states and cities across the country over the past few years. Other sectors of the working class are waking up, too, mobilized in part by the example of teachers. 

In the COVID-19 crisis, nurses are questioning the managers and politicians who have forced them to work without protective equipment. General Electric workers at a factory outside Boston demanded on March 30 that their jet engine facility be converted to making the additional ventilators that for-profit companies and the federal government actually decided not to produce in 2014. Detroit bus drivers and Pittsburgh garbage collectors have struck for better safety precautions. And on March 30, Amazon —  owned by the world’s richest man — fired a worker for organizing a walkout of 50 employees at one of its main New York City warehouses that demanded that the company stop putting workers, toiling in close proximity inside the massive building, at risk of spreading the virus.

Teachers, nurses, Amazon employees, and all workers deserve a political party of our own, one that fights for us and with us and is made up of us. We shouldn’t be endorsing Joe Biden or any politician running as the candidate of a capitalist party.

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Daniel Werst

Daniel is a teacher, former carpenter, and long-term socialist living in Indianapolis.

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