Opinion | Civil Rights

Dysfunctional democracy blocks educational progress — Senate, protect voting rights

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

At a time when Americans want elected leaders to be focused on supporting students and educators as they return to the classroom for the new school year, some politicians continue to focus on making it harder for millions of Americans - particularly Black, Brown, Indigenous and young voters - to cast a ballot.

Just last week, the Texas Senate passed one of the most restrictive voting bills in the country - and Texas doesn't stand alone. Nationwide, we are witnessing a massive, coordinated attack on voting rights, the likes of which we have not seen since Jim Crow. Already this year, more than 500 anti-voting bills have been introduced in state legislatures, and more than 30 have been enacted into law. In states like Georgia and Iowa, these bills are rolling back early voting, adding unnecessary requirements to vote, and preventing voters waiting in long lines from receiving food and water. Many of these bills are predicated on the "Big Lie" that the 2020 election - one of the safest and most secure elections in history - was stolen. 

As a middle school teacher and now as the president of the National Education Association, I am deeply concerned about these threats to our democracy. 

It's the job of educators to teach our students about civics, American history, and the importance of voting. We know that our public schools are more than places of learning - our schools are in fact the foundation of our democracy. The first encounter most children will have with the basic principles of civic engagement takes place in a classroom - and we want this engagement to last throughout their lifetimes. 

And while it is teachers who are often responsible for introducing our students to civic education and their responsibilities of participating in the democratic process, it is our leaders in Congress who are responsible for protecting Americans rights - most fundamentally our voting rights. It is their job to ensure our students will be able to fully participate in our democracy. 

A dysfunctional democracy blocks much-needed progress in public education that the majority of Americans support, at a time when our students need more support than ever. The voices of Black, Hispanic and Indigenous Americans who disproportionately rely on public education are also being disproportionately suppressed at the ballot box, undermining their ability to vote for change. Indeed, our students are not only witnesses to these relentless attacks on voting rights nationwide - oftentimes seem to be the targets of these bills. 

In 2020, voters - including teachers, parents and students - made it clear that they are ready for change. We voted for progress across a range of issues: quality public schools for our children, a fair minimum wage, a just COVID-19 recovery, as well as racial and social justice. All of this progress is at risk unless every single American gets to exercise their fundamental right to vote.  

Protecting our democracy is not a partisan issue, yet lawmakers across the country are making it one. That is why I, as well as educators across our nation, have coalesced around voting rights as a crucial priority. We believe that our country should be a place where every voice is heard and where every vote is counted. Now, we are using our voices as educators to call on the federal government to protect voting rights. 

We as educators cannot do this on our own - we need the federal government to protect voting rights. That is why Congress must make voting rights a top priority by passing critical voting rights legislation. The Senate must protect our democracy because our students, our educators and our country depend on it. We have no other choice.

Becky Pringle is president of the National Education Association and a middle school science teacher. Follow her on Twitter: @BeckyPringle 

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