The Washington Teachers’ Union: Fighting for Equity and Social Justice

DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson has led a citywide engagement campaign to set the vision for the schools system's future. (Courtesy of DCPS)
DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson has led a citywide engagement campaign to set the vision for the schools system's future. (Courtesy of DCPS)

The 5,400 members of the Washington Teachers’ Union have dedicated their lives to giving each and every DC student the education they need today to reach their full potential. The union, which I am honored to serve as president, works to ensure that the teachers have the resources and support they need to deliver excellence in teaching and learning.

Our fight for educational excellence for all students has not been easy. We must continually advocate for equity in the educational opportunities that are made available to low income children of color and children from more affluent families.

We know that every child can achieve if given the resources and support they need. But all too often educational resources in D.C. have been unfairly tilted toward the affluent areas of our city. The result is that over the past decade the gap between children of color and their more affluent white peers has widen by more than 44 scale score points.

All too often, children from low income families come to school hungry, suffering from anxiety and unable to concentrate on their studies.

But we in the Washington Teachers’ Union believe that if educators, administrators, parents and other community stakeholders collaborate as full and equal partners, we can create a school system in which all students can access educational opportunities and reach their full potential

Vouchers are not the answer

We do not believe that funneling public funds to private schools through vouchers is the answer.

Enemies of public education say that giving parents vouchers paid for by tax dollars to send their children to for-profit private schools will force schools to compete with each other for “customers” and all schools will improve.

This has proven to be nonsense.

Voucher advocates say they are promoting “school choice.” But parents and educators are seeing that starving public school of funds merely preordains their failure. So parents end up with no choice at all. They must pay to send their kids to schools where the main goal is making a profit, not nurturing youngsters.

Studies show that the education delivered by private schools is no better than the education delivered by properly funded public schools. The only thing different between private and public schools is that private schools cost both the public and the families that use them more money. (Vouchers never cover the complete costs).

For-profit schools treat families as “customers.” Public schools, at their best, treat families, students, and the entire community, as partners striving together for excellence and equity in learning opportunities for all students.

Community schools produce high quality education

And even if they have good intentions, schools that must make a profit off of their students cannot beat publicly-funded community schools in serving the needs of students burdened by poverty.

Mayor Muriel Bowser has pledged to double the number of community schools in D.C. and the Washington Teachers’ Union has begun a campaign to support this goal.

Community schools improve student learning by bringing together many partners to offer a wide range of supports and opportunities to children, youth, families and communities. These include academic resources, health and social services and opportunities for general community engagement. They help build stronger families and healthier communities. What’s more, they offer a personalized curriculum that emphasizes real-world learning and community problem-solving.

Along with community schools, WTU has launched a collaborative effort with D.C.’s new Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson to bring The Algebra Project to DC public schools. This is a program to teach math and reasoning using methods tailored to the learning needs of many children who are burdened by Poverty. It was designed by Dr. Robert Moses, a Civil Rights Movement icon and math teacher who says that access to math literacy has all too often been limited to children from more prosperous homes and that such access “is the Civil Rights Movement of today.”

Collaboration: The key to educational equity

Furthermore, through collaborating with UDC’s Early Childhood Leadership Institute and other organizations, the Washington Teachers’ Union is developing plans to establish an Early Childhood Educator Academy, which will better equip teachers to work with young children, who are at the age when mental, physical and emotional patterns are first established.

The Algebra Project, the campaign to increase the number of community schools in DC, and the Early Childhood Educator Academy are just a few of the examples of collaboration in action.

For example, the Washington Teachers Union and DCPS have agreed to work together to focus more attention on the social and emotional learning of all students.

Furthermore, collaboration is key to addressing another problem faced by DC public schools: the low rate of teacher retention.

Much has been written recently about the high levels of teacher turnover that plagues our educational system. But what’s not often said is that the highest levels of teacher turnover are in schools that can afford it the least: schools serving low income students who suffer the most from not being able to depend upon the type of nurturing that is possible only when teachers stay long enough to get to know the students and their needs.

A survey conducted by the Washington Teachers’ Union showed that many teachers left DCPS to work in other school districts because the experienced frustration about the over-testing of children and the highly subjective system of evaluating the performance of educators.

They also felt that their professionalism and experience were not valued when it came to developing educational policies

Responding, in part, to this problem, Chancellor Wilson has pledged to broaden the decision making processes to include teachers, parents and the community.

The Washington Teachers’ Union supports this goal 100 percent.

We believe, and studies confirm, that working together, teachers, administrators, parents, students and community members can break down just about every existing barrier to delivering to students the educational opportunities they need and deserve.

The Washington Teachers Union, which is the voice of DCPS educators, stands ready, willing, able and eager to work with the DCPS administration and all public school stakeholders to meet the challenges we face.

Together, we can create a school system that assures each and every student receives the highest quality education possible, regardless of their race, class, ethnicity of zip code.

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