MAGA Republicans are destroying our public schools. Teachers and parents must fight back.

Our public schools are not just physical structures. They are the embodiment of our civic values and ideals.

Those values include the fact that education opens doors for all, and it must be free and available to all without exception; that all young people should have the opportunity to go to a safe, welcoming school that prepares them for college, a career and life; and that their school experience should support them academically, socially and emotionally.

But some people want that cornerstone of our society – the schools at the center of our communities, that don’t just educate our kids but often feed them, teach them understanding and tolerance, and prepare them to engage in our democracy – to crumble, and they’re wielding sledgehammers to make it happen.

Support for public education has long been embraced by Democrats and Republicans. But while there have always been detractors, attacks on public education from a vocal minority – many who consider themselves MAGA Republicans – have increased and worsened, intensified by pandemic-related debates about how best to support kids and schools during a global health crisis.

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Instead of coming together around solutions we know will help our students, some are unfortunately hellbent on destroying public education to advance both a political and school privatization agenda.

Overwhelmingly, parents, educators and supporters of public schools are against this ongoing divisive rhetoric and against the systematic defunding of schools. But we must do more. We must advance commonsense solutions focused on what kids and communities need, including strategies that will meet the challenges our students face such as learning loss, anxiety and depression.

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Our schools need supported, well-trained teachers who have the freedom to teach, collaborate with parents and help their kids discover who they want to become. Students need additional mental health resources to deal with trauma, anxiety and rising suicide rates. And school districts need to expand experiential learning opportunities, so students can learn by doing.

New College of Florida students and supporters protest in Sarasota on Feb. 28, 2023. The school's  Board of Trustees recently abolished the office handling diversity, equity and inclusion programs during a contentious and emotional meeting that included testimony from students worried that a board reshaped by Gov. Ron DeSantis is making the school unwelcoming to minorities.

Of course, without paying and respecting teachers more, we won’t have the staff we need to attract and make any of this possible.

Working together, teachers, parents and administrators continue to do the work daily to help kids do well and overcome the past few years, both in school and beyond. And while opponents are quick to ban books, censor curriculum and demonize teachers and school staff, our work to meet the needs of students and families is centered on these solutions. Because that’s the kind of creative thinking our students need.

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What they don’t need is a politicized classroom where MAGA Republicans pit neighbors against neighbors; censor accurate, age-appropriate history, science and social studies lessons; and strip teachers of their ability to connect with students and parents to ensure a healthy, supportive and safe learning environment.

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Thankfully, we’ve seen efforts to push back against these toxic and self-serving actions. We’ve seen Florida parents call out culture wars and warn other states what’s at stake if politicians like Gov. Ron DeSantis continue to pull resources from public schools.

We’ve seen authors like Jodi Picoult and James Patterson strongly oppose book bans and the removal of their titles from school libraries. And the NAACP partnered with our union to distribute books featuring Black Americans to demonstrate the content that censorship takes away from diverse student populations.

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Unfortunately, too many of our teachers and schools are facing these issues in isolation. We need Americans – from elected officials to democracy groups to civic groups to faith leaders – to join the parents, educators, students and other community members to help us fight back, much like unions, faith and community groups did recently in Florida, during a day of action to protest DeSantis’ agenda.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, meets with USA TODAY's Editorial Board on Aug. 24, 2022.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, meets with USA TODAY's Editorial Board on Aug. 24, 2022.

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If we are to effectively counter the extremists who wish to put their political vendettas and ideologies ahead of children’s education, we need more people and groups speaking up about how these culture wars pull money, resources and support away from public schools.

Public education is a vital institution that needs all civic society behind it. Let’s protect and strengthen it, with our agenda that addresses the issues – learning loss, teacher retention and student success – instead of fanning the flames more.

Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: DeSantis, GOP are trying to destroy schools. Here's how to push back.