Less than 36 hours after President Biden had been inaugurated, the presidents of the nation’s two teachers unions were in the White House being honored by the First Lady.
“I’m ready to get to work with you and the unions that support you every day,” Dr. Biden told educators on January 21 at a “virtual event to honor the work of educators.”
“I could not wait one more day to have this meeting, because I have never felt prouder of our profession,” said Dr. Biden, a community college English professor who is a member of the National Education Association.
Some Republicans and even nonpartisan or Democrat school district leaders have blamed the unions for preventing schools from reopening in person during the Covid-19 pandemic. But Biden focused her remarks on praising teachers. “Educators, you’ve done it all,” she said, recounting teachers who had distributed food and taken “tearful calls from parents.”
“On behalf of a grateful nation, thank you,” said Biden. She said her faculty colleagues had been coaching her on more effective online teaching. “I know how hard it is. I am teaching hybrid this semester myself.”
She said the administration wants to work with teachers to achieve “the goal of safely reopening a majority of our K-8 schools in the first 100 days of our administration.”
The president of the National Education Association, Becky Pringle, who was physically at the White House for the virtual event, began by saying that she was the great-granddaughter of an enslaved American and noted that the White House had been built by enslaved people. She said she knew that President Biden, Vice President Harris, and the first lady “will partner with us” to “transform” the U.S. public education system “into a racially just and equitable” one.
The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, who was also present at the White House, began by making reference to Dr. Biden’s “tussle with the Wall Street Journal,” which had published an op-ed piece making fun of her for using the “Dr.” honorific for her Ed.D. degree. Weingarten said the title “shows our respect for her.”
“We pledge to work with you,” Weingarten said.
Thank you @DrBiden for inviting @BeckyPringle & me to join you in the White House today. Day 2!! It means so much to educators to feel respected by a President & a First Lady. Educators- from the classroom teacher to the bus driver always lead with hope, but now we have help. 🙏 pic.twitter.com/lgxZ95t8yu
— Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) January 22, 2021
Biden returned the promise, reminding the union leaders that she had said that if Biden was elected, the teachers unions “will always have a seat at the table. And I meant it.”
“Joe is going to be a champion for you because he knows that’s the best way to serve our students,” the first lady said.
It’s hard to know how to interpret the event. Perhaps it was a consolation prize, given that both Weingarten herself and a former NEA president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, were mentioned for education secretary but not chosen. President Biden also went ahead and chose Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo as commerce secretary even after the American Federation of Teachers “expressed forceful opposition to Ms. Raimondo with the Biden transition team,” according to the New York Times.
Weingarten offered her own assessment of the event on Twitter, along with a photo: “It means so much to educators to feel respected by a President & a First Lady.”
Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.