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The head of America’s largest teaching union has issued a stark warning about the twin threats to the country’s education system and democracy from President Donald Trump.

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia issued an excoriating attack on the former reality TV show star who she accused of fermenting hatred against unions, immigrants, minority communities and through his education policies, children and young people.

And through his appointment of billionaire Betsy Devos to the post of Education Secretary public schools were under threat and hard-won battles over segregation, rights for minorities and trade union rights were being diminished.

“She has turned back the clock to the 1950s and she is a disgrace to her office,” said Ms Eskelsen Garcia.

In an exclusive interview with the NASUWT's International Solidarity magazine at the union's Annual Conference in Belfast, Ms Eskelsen Garcia spoke about the dangers for democracy of having a populist in the White House.

She said: “At best he is looking the other way. At worst he is actually fermenting hatred against immigrants, against LGBT people, against women, against Muslims. We have never seen anything like it.”

“Democracy is at stake and the soul of our country is at stake, what we have never lived up to but what we were always supposed to be.

“We were supposed to believe in freedom, democracy, equality, respect and that everybody deserved a fair chance to make it and be happy. Trump has turned all that on its head.”

But the NEA will be playing its part in uniting the electorate to ensure that one of the Democratic contenders will become the next President.  

With more than three million members and a presence in “every neighbourhood that has a public school, in every community, in every state” her union was best placed to play a crucial role in the fightback.

“The important thing is Trump must not be re-elected. There is no organisation better situated to bring those communities together than the National Education Association, my union,” she added.

Ms Eskelsen Garcia warned that Betsy Devos was threatening access to free high-quality education by her ideological stance on marketisation and her total lack of experience of education: “She believes public education should not exist.

“She believes the marketplace, as she calls it, the education industry should be the goal. Public schools should be shut down and parents should be given a few thousand dollars and wished well in the marketplace.
You should have all the education you can afford, says the billionaire!”
 
The NEA President suggested that despite the attacks from Trump and Devos teachers across the US - but particularly in some of the poorest states which had limited union rights - had been successful in fighting back.

The grassroots Red for Ed movement which started in West Virginia, a state which has one of the lowest funded public school systems, and has led to walkouts, demonstrations, rallies and public meetings across the US was hailed as a positive reaction to the attacks on teachers and was having real successes.

“In the 2018 mid-term elections every politician, Republican, Democract…everybody ran on better public schools and nobody ran on more privatisation and more test scores and making firing teachers easier.

“Everybody ran on respecting teachers and those that had a good track record on education won.”

Ms Eskelsen Garcia acknowledged the threats to her union from the Janus ruling but said not only would the NEA survive but it was “thriving” and membership was up 20,000.

Union members had engaged with their colleagues in schools “telling them why they belong and why others should belong”. 

“So there are thousands of and thousands of conversations, not a flyer, not a webinar but the person who teaches across the hall from you. We believe that has made all the difference – good old-fashioned organising, not an app.”

Combining this with Red for Ed meant a new generation of activisits was coming into the union and thousands were getting more involved which would “make all the difference in the world in the next few years.”

And the coming years will be crucial for education and for democracy itself as she thinks about the fight to stop Donald Trump being re-elected.

She said: “One in every 100 Americans is a member of the NEA. We will be using our circle of influence to save the world. We are all wearing spandex and capes these days, the superhero in us all must emerge and we are up to it.

“This union is going to be the union that unites everyone to defeat Donald Trump at the ballot box.”
 

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