The unrest unfolding across the nation is borne out of centuries of a society founded on racism, a society rooted in the notion that black and brown people have to, time and again, prove their humanity. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police is another searing example of the criminalization of blackness in America, and it is emblematic of the profound injustice that permeates nearly every aspect of our society. The story of this unrest is not the broken windows. We cannot and will not be distracted from the root cause, from the cries of pain.
The story of this moment is the story of every micro and macro aggression that people of color endure each day. It is a systemic disinvestment from public education–but not in wealthy, white areas. It is the lack of affordable housing. It is the hedge funds and healthcare systems robbing people of their fair share every single day. It is the uprising of a collective consciousness and of an unapologetic demand for better for people of color in our society.
For decades, our students have been robbed of their constitutional right to a thorough and efficient public education system. We have taken our fight to the ballot box, to the streets, and to the courts. But still, for far too many across the country, the promise of an education system that recognizes their inherent value as a human being goes unrealized. The chronic underfunding of an education system is a feature–not a bug–of a society deeply rooted in racism. And as educators, and quite frankly as human beings, we have a fundamental responsibility to recognize the systems that perpetuate the dehumanization of our students and communities.
In considering how to continue to elevate the urgent need to address the racist underpinnings of American society, we must connect the dots between so many deeply troubling facets of our society. We offer the following Five Principles that we believe must underscore the work each of us does every day.
As a union of educators, we are deeply committed to the following principles, and we urge educators, parents, elected officials, and community partners to endorse these foundational principles:
1. The connection between an underfunded education system and the criminalization of blackness cannot be disregarded. Our fight for a fair and just education system must be rooted in a fight for racial justice.
2. From the literal poisoning of students and staff in school buildings to massive budget cuts leaving students without nurses and counselors (with deathly consequences in the case of Philadelphia student Laporshia Massey)– the injustices in our education system are deeply rooted in a racist system. Education funding and investment must address decades of systemic disinvestment; further, education funding should not be reliant on a property tax system that further perpetuates and exacerbates inequitable wealth, too often leaving communities of color shortchanged.
3. While we fight for an equitable education system, so too must we fight for deeply interconnected fights for housing, for healthcare, and for job access and workers’ rights. The disenfranchising of people of color is pervasive in all facets of society.
4. Our criminal justice system perpetuates the criminalization of black and brown people. The school to prison pipeline is real, and it threatens the futures and the lives of black and brown children every single day. Without a massive overhaul, the system will continue to have deadly consequences for people of color. It is a system that time and again sets our young people up for failure or even death. At the local, state, and federal levels, the overfunding of police and militaries must stop. Rather than investing in our children from early ages, our society chooses to spend $80 Billion annually to incarcerate predominantly people of color.
5. Educators and all people must take actionable steps to dismantle a violent system of white supremacy that has jeopardized the very humanity of the students in our classrooms, their families, and our communities. School systems make overtures indicating they are interested in recruiting teachers of color, but allow schools to operate without any teachers of color. We are committed to fighting to ensure meaningful policies are put in place that promote diverse teaching populations in every school; we are committed to ongoing professional development on anti-racist practices; and we are committed to working to build an education system that reflects the humanity of every single child.
Arthur Steinberg, President of AFT Pennsylvania: “The events of the past week have greatly highlighted the inequities in our system. Not just our criminal justice system, but our systems of public education, healthcare, housing, and economic opportunity. Black and Brown children and their families have every right to the same rights and privileges that my children and family enjoy. The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified inequality in our society, and the protest and demonstrations happening now are merely the voices of people who feel they have been ignored by our government over and over again. We cannot remain silent any longer: we must work to enact the change that so many people in our Commonwealth and our nation need and deserve.”
Jerry T. Jordan, President, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers: “In considering how to continue to elevate the urgent need to address the racist underpinnings of American society, none of us can afford to ignore the interconnectedness of the murder of George Floyd and the daily devastation of racism that permeates every facet of our society. The criminalization of blackness is borne out in ways large and small every single day. The murders of Breyonna Taylor, of George Floyd and so many more at the hands of police are devastating, and they are emblematic of the deep roots of racism in our society.
Further, as protests have unfolded around the murder of George Floyd, we’ve seen the violent response to protestors play out in stark contrast to ‘re-open’ groups of predominantly white protestors, many armed, allowed to protest for the ‘freedom’ to get a haircut without recourse. Just last night in Philadelphia, we saw masses of white men gathered with weapons in the name of ‘safeguarding’ a neighborhood they saw as ‘theirs.’ They were allowed to roam the streets and weaponize their whiteness.
The principles we outline are more than words. They have been, and will always be, the foundation of the work we do.”
Nina Esposito-Visgitis, President of Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers Local 400 and Vice President, AFT Pennsylvania: “The members of PFT Local 400 go to work everyday to help improve the lives of our students. What we recognize most is that teaching doesn’t stop at the classroom door—our kids live in a society that is inherently unequal in the way it funds public education, imposes criminal justice, provides housing, and whose government is, at times, indifferent to their wellbeing. Our members understand that in order to create a more equitable world for our students, we must take action to ensure equality in all aspects of their lives.”
Democratic Appropriations Chair PA Senator Vincent Hughes (Philadelphia): “People are tired of the racist, classist system that has effectively worked to oppress black people since its inception. The social unrest we are experiencing across the nation as we mourn the murder of George Floyd is 400 years of fatigue manifested the loudest cry for justice since the Civil Rights Movement. To that end, we must come with policy solutions designed to fight against generations of unfulfilled promises of fairness and equity. I am pleased to support our educators and their push for a broad agenda to address the systemic issues that have driven inequality in black, brown and poor communities, and hopeful we can adopt this policy platform in Pennsylvania.”
Democratic Caucus Chair PA Representative Joanna McClinton (Philadelphia): “Education provides children the opportunity to transcend the barrier of poverty and provides pathways toward success. However, when education is not fairly funded the barriers remain in place. We must not allow this for any child in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and fight for their futures!”
On behalf of POWER, Reverend Mark Tyler, Senior Pastor of Mother Bethel AME: “The murder of George Floyd and the subsequent uprising throughout this country has laid bare the fault line in our nation with regards to institutional racism. The problem is in every facet of life and can be seen most clearly in public education. The call of the PFT takes seriously the problem and suggests the right direction forward in alleviating centuries long oppression.”
Philadelphia City Councilmember Derek S. Green, At-Large: “The tumultuous events of the past several days, following the horrific death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department, have ignited real anger, anguish and desperation for permanent change in this country. This change begins with an upheaval and overhaul of our nation’s justice system and the foundations that were laid hundreds of years ago for this systemic racism to continue. The principles outlined by the AFTPA and PFT speak to the overarching goal and what must happen in order for our children to have a fighting chance at a bright future. As a proud member of the Fund Our Facilities Coalition and more importantly, an African American man and father, I applaud their efforts in creating a more equitable educational system for all the children of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym, At-Large: “For years, I’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with the PFT as we have fought for fair and equitable public education—and calling out the racist systems in place that for far too long have short changed our children and communities. The principles outlined in this document lay bare the interconnectedness of the murder of George Floyd, toxic school buildings and criminal underfunding of public education, housing discrimination, a healthcare system that values profit over people, and a criminal justice system that is far from just. This moment calls for bold action, and I stand with the PFT & AFTPA in their commitment to fighting for a more just tomorrow.”
PA Senator Lindsey M. Williams (Allegheny): “In addition to educating our students, teachers are also members of our communities. They see firsthand every day what inequality in the criminal justice system, access to healthcare, and housing affordability have on the kids they teach. Teachers play the important role of imparting knowledge, but they are also stewards of their community’s values. The core value of equity is central to schoolteachers’ beliefs and I’m proud to be a part of AFT and PFT’s publishing of these Principles.”
PA Representative Ed Gainey (Allegheny): “Our teachers are our greatest assets. If you want to know the value of what our teachers today look like and what they have done to continue to educate our kids during a pandemic. AFTPA is doing their part to educate our students and teach them a history of inclusiveness.”
PA Representative Leanne Krueger (Delaware): “AFT Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers have always understood that racial justice and equity in our Commonwealth and in our nation do not have single-issue solutions. The Principles they released today illustrate the intersectionality of a thorough and efficient public education and how it is connected to housing, criminal justice, healthcare, and the economy. In order to achieve equity in one of these areas, we must strive for equity in all of them. I’m always grateful for and proud of my partnership with AFT and PFT, but moments like these make it even more meaningful for our students, their families, and their communities.”