Town Hall meeting features AFT and LFT presidents

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More than 100 Louisiana Federation of Teachers members from New Orleans, Jefferson Parish, East Baton Rouge and other Louisiana cities and parishes turned out for an AFT town hall meeting at a downtown New Orleans hotel on Feb. 12. The town hall gave the members, as well as parents, community activists and others, an opportunity to hear from AFT President Randi Weingarten and Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, and to provide feedback on the Reclaiming the Promise program.

Weingarten applauded the Louisiana members and their unions for standing up to those who have used Hurricane Katrina to undermine traditional public schools and the educators who work at them, particularly in New Orleans. She chastised those elected leaders who found it easy to take away people's rights while "they were in shock from Katrina."

The AFT president noted that polls show the community overwhelmingly supports its public schools and has "the same grievances and gripes that we do—and the same aspirations."

"We have worked with communities to fight these fights," Weingarten said. "This is our collective fight. That's when you win."

Winning, she added, "means great neighborhood schools where people want to send their kids, people want to work and kids want to be engaged."

Several of the Louisiana members who spoke expressed concern about the out-of-control growth of charter schools in New Orleans, the gap between haves and have-nots and its impact on schools and education, and the overtesting of students and the use of those tests to evaluate teachers.

Jefferson Federation of Teachers member Maria West, a teacher for 32 years, said she was tired of non-educators and school board members "who have not taught a day in their lives" determining what goes on in public school classrooms.

Beverly Cook, who only became a member of the United Teachers of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, said: "The union is what draws us all together. I could not possibly think about NOT being a union member now."

Monaghan discussed the numerous obstacles that the LFT has confronted in recent years, many of them a direct result of an unfriendly governor and state Legislature. But he spoke with pride about how the state federation and its members have risen to those challenges, particularly in the courts, where the state federation has won a number of legal battles, including the recent vindication of some 7,000 teachers and school employees who were wrongfully terminated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The LFT president cautioned, however, that "real justice" will not come from court rulings but from success in the political arena, and from the election of leaders who value the voices of teachers, paraprofessionals and other schools employees. "We've been making the argument that the promise of public education" should be available to every child and that "we can have schools that actually work for children," Monaghan said.

The town hall was held a day after Louisiana School Boards Association Excecutive Director Scott Richard met with the entire AFT Executive Board to discuss a partnership agreement with the LFT and other stakeholders. The educators have agreed to present a common front in the coming legislative session.

From left, Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan, AFT President Randi Weingarten, Louisiana School Boards Association Executive Director Scott Richard and St. Tammany Federation of Teachers and School Employees President Elsie Burkhalter.