Leading teachers unions mounted a new pressure campaign on Wednesday to push the Biden administration to waive student loan debt and spend more to benefit college educators. The same education activists that have organized to keep classrooms closed want President Biden to scrub away the debt they’ve incurred earning advanced degrees.
The American Federation of Teachers, one of the country’s two largest teachers unions, and the American Association of University Professors partnered with a pair of Massachusetts Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, to help them get results now. The national campaign, titled “A New Deal for Higher Education,” wants the government to treat higher education as a public good.
AFT president Randi Weingarten told fellow activists on Wednesday that the campaign is about asking for more than just new grant money but about transforming higher education policy to make sure no one has burdensome student debt.
“When you start seeing big, big, big athletic studios [and] stadiums as opposed to huge course offerings… when you see all of these things where the priorities are so wrong where young people have so much student debt, we have to change this,” said Ms. Weingarten on a conference call. “And that’s why we’ve joined up and teamed up to create that bold agenda and to call it a ‘new deal’ because of what that means. A new deal means we need to shake things up, be bold, and not just respond to crises but actually create new opportunities to make sure that when we say everyone has the right to go to college, we mean it and we don’t burden people, particularly people of color, particularly people who are indigenous, particularly people who are poor.”
Ms. Warren, who recorded a video message for the group because she was preoccupied at the impeachment trial of former President Trump, told the unions and activist educators that Democrats had their backs and would deliver for their interests.
“[Senate] Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and I are calling on President Biden to immediately cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt, which would give tens of millions of Americans immediate financial relief,” Ms. Warren said. “We’ve got to get that done.”
The pressure campaign comes as Mr. Biden is already stuck between parents clamoring for schools to reopen and teachers unions, including AFT, that have called for more to be done to protect teachers from coronavirus in order for in-person learning to be safe.
Teachers unions are counting on Mr. Biden to take their side and to provide a return on their investment. In 2020, teachers unions made $43.7 million in political contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org, which was more than in any previous year. AFT in particular sent $2 million to Priorities USA Action, a Democratic super PAC that worked in support of Mr. Biden’s election, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Now, the unions want more government spending to benefit their members and the consumers they serve.
“Decades of disinvestment in public education, in particular higher-ed, has led to chronic under-funding of our institutions,” said Irene Mulvey, American Association of University Professors president, to her fellow activists. “This is responsible, in large part, for the student debt crisis, for widening racial inequities, and for an impoverished academic profession.”
The ‘New Deal for Higher Education’ aims to fundamentally transform education policy to simultaneously address social, racial, and economic justice issues observed by the activists and the overhauling of the cost of higher education. The plan calls for providing higher-education access to anyone regardless of their ability to pay, ensuring job security for all educators, and canceling student loan debt for everyone.
“Student debt is certainly not a millennial and Gen Z issue exclusively. In Massachusetts we have seen educators who have lost their licensure to teach because they have defaulted on student loans,” said Ms. Pressley to the activists. “What a very cruel irony and contradiction.”
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