Speaking at the House Committee on Education and Labor hearing on underpaid teachers and crumbling schools on Tuesday, freshman Connecticut Rep. Jahana Hayes reminded everyone why we should have more teachers in Congress.
During the committee hearing, Hayes—the 2016 National Teacher of the Year and one of New England’s first black congresswomen—shined as she passionately advocated for funding public education while rejecting the hemming and hawing from other committee members that teachers or schools can get additional funds, but not both.
Hayes particularly grilled Kennesaw State University economics professor Dr. Benjamin Scafidi, the Republican-selected witness, on his advocacy for school choice and vouchers.
“The confusion lies in the fact that we’re thinking that it’s one or the other—pay teachers, or improve facilities. I want both. It’s not a trade off,” Hayes said. “We’re talking about this from an economic standpoint, and dollars and cents. That’s not what education looks like.”
“This is not an economist’s problem,” she added. “If we’re looking at it as a business, if we’re treating education as a business...like corporations, then I would say that we also need a $2 trillion bailout. We need for a government to save teachers, to save schools. We’d like that bailout.”
Witnesses and members of Congress recounted the hardships that teachers have told them. Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, for instance, told the story of a science teacher whose classroom was so cold that the entire class spent the day huddled around tabletop stoves to stay warm. But Hayes brought a sorely needed first-hand perspective; this time last year, she reminded the committee, she was teaching high school history.
She also took on Scafidi’s insistence that what teachers really wanted were wage increases, rather than the broad sets of demands, including increased funding and resources that’s characterized recent labor fights. “Teachers—their priorities should be what their priorities are. If their priorities are salaries, they should focus on that issue,” Scafidi testified. “If teachers want salary increases, they should focus like a laser beam on that.”
“In my year as National Teacher of the Year, there were four finalists for that honor,” Hayes said. “Last year, three of those four finalists went on strike.”
“If you think this is just about salaries,” she added to Scafidi, “That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works. My colleagues from Oklahoma, Washington, and LA USD went on strike not for salaries, for resources and to make sure their students got what they needed.”
Hayes is absolutely right. Looking at this broken education system as if it’s a math problem instead of attempting to understand the real human costs that come with underfunded teachers, understaffed school, and ill-supported public education students is irresponsible and disingenuous, and explaining that narrative and speaking up for the teachers who can’t be heard themselves has become the responsibility of educators like Hayes to bear.
We don’t just need teacher advocates and spouses of teachers in Congress and testifying before it. We need more teachers themselves, to lead in the ways in which Congress is unequipped to otherwise.