Open Letter to NJEA/NEA and AFT-NJ/AFT Leadership: In Defense of Academic Freedom and Justice Education
May 10, 2015

Open Letter from NJEA/NEA and AFT-NJ/AFT Members in Defense of Academic Freedom and Justice Education to:

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association (NEA)
Becky Pringle, Vice President of the National Education Association (NEA)
Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)
Mary Cathryn Ricker, Executive Vice President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)
Wendell Steinhauer, President of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA)
Marie Blistan, Vice President of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA)
Donna Chiera, President of the American Federation of Teachers-New Jersey (AFT-NJ)
Cheryl Skeete, Executive Vice President of the American Federation of Teachers-New Jersey (AFT-NJ)

To the Leadership of the NJEA /AFT-NJ and parent affiliates:

We, the undersigned, as members of the New Jersey Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers New Jersey, and their parent organizations, the National Education Association (NEA), and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), wish to challenge the leadership of the NJEA, AFT-NJ, and their parent organizations, to take a public stance in support of academic freedom, free speech, and the teaching of controversial issues within the classroom.

As you are aware, Marylin Zuniga, first year 3rd grade teacher in Orange, New Jersey, is at risk of losing her position, and possibly her teaching license for supporting her students’ desire to send get well cards to Mumia Abu-Jamal, former Black Panther and journalist. Suspension and possible termination and revocation of teaching license are not only harsh treatment carried out without due process, but extreme measures by the Orange Public Schools and their superintendent which will have future implications.

The circumstances surrounding Ms. Zuniga’s situation is a classic example of how our democracy is at risk. It shows how some may cast aspersions on teachers who go beyond the curriculum and teach what may debatably be perceived as controversial by some. However, good teachers go beyond the district provided resources and bring the world into the classroom. Punishing a teacher who does this will open the door for similar challenges, while also scaring teachers and future teachers from exploring controversial topics, or going beyond what is supplied by the school.

By taking this public stance, the NJEA, AFT-NJ, and our parent organizations, will show we stand against the unreasonable punishment of teachers who dare to teach issues perceived as controversial, and political. It is the duty of our union to not only protect the civil liberties of Ms. Zuniga, but all current and future teachers in the classroom. If we fail to do so, it will not only marginalize but also cast an unnatural blemish upon teachers who dare to teach for justice.

We need our union to be a union that not only protects our personal investments and pensions, but a union that stands up for free speech, academic freedom, and justice. We need our union to stand up for and demand progressive correction to support the development of new teachers. We need our union to take publicly this stand to help protect future teachers, whose professors are telling them to “stay away from teaching controversial issues in the classroom.” It is being reported that professors are citing Ms. Zuniga’s case as reasons why future teachers should avoid these topics.

We need our union to support teachers who constantly supplement their curriculum with a richer, broader array of resources. Many of these supplemental resources are not covered by the Pearson products many districts, like Orange Public Schools, have been forced to adopt. We need our union to support teachers who understand that the Pearson-packaged curricula and products forced upon them and their students do not accurately, nor culturally represent the needs of the communities they serve. We need our union to understand the importance of cultural relevancy and cultural responsiveness, especially in communities of color. In many of these communities, students have close relatives in jail and have intimate relationships with people who occupy those institutions.

We need our union to support teachers who understand public education is under attack in more ways than one. We need you to understand that scripted and prescribed curricula are attempts to sanitize the teaching profession and are another way our profession and democracy are attacked by corporations and the privatization movement. They would love for nothing else but the firing of this teacher to be successful. It will allow them to justify why their products are necessary for our schools, therefore further placing our shaky democracy and public school system at greater risk of corporate takeover.

As high-stakes standardized tests and their corporate parents continue to infiltrate our classrooms, teachers are beginning to see a dangerous shift in the drastic narrowing of the curriculum. The teaching of social-emotional literacy and all other literacies that do not fit within the construct of test-related math and reading literacy, have increasingly become frowned upon and phased out of our classrooms. Teachers who dare to explore controversial topics and justice issues within the classroom are often whispered about and considered non-compliant. This is a practice we cannot accept, and it is because of this that we insist on immediate action. It is our profession and democracy at stake here, and they need to be defended at all costs.

Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price, Active member NJEA/NEA
Brian Ford, Active member NJEA/NEA
Melissa Katz, NJSEA member NJEA/NEA
Carrie Odgers, Local Association President NJEA/NEA
Marcella Simadiris, Active member NJEA/NEA
Kelly Huber, Active member/Local Union Representative NJEA/NEA
Annette M. Alston, Active member/Local Vice President-elect NJEA/NEA
Leon Alirangues, Local Association Union Representative NJEA/NEA
Brenda Walker, Retired NJEA/NEA
Susan Bivona, Active member NJEA/NEA
Amy Curry, Active member NJEA/NEA
Khadijah White, Active member AFT-NJ/AFT
Marguerite soojian, Active member NJEA/NEA
Betty Maloney, Retired AFT-NJ/AFT
Dan Cummings, Active member NJEA/NEA
James Whitescarver, Active member NJEA/NEA
Janet C. Mandel, Active member NJREA/NEA
Greta mills, Active member NJEA/NEA
Eleni Verardi, Active member NJEA/NEA
Melissa Tomlinson, Active member NJEA/NEA
Amy Howatt, Active member NJEA/NEA
Leah Z Owens, Former member Newark Education Workers Caucus
Al Moussab, Local Union Vice President AFT-NJ/AFT
Pat Hurley, Active member NJEA/NEA
Ronen Kauffman, Active member NJEA/NEA
Branden Rippey, Active member-Local Union Representative AFT-NJ/AFT
Jose Vilson, Active member UFT / NYSUT / AFT / NEA
Anne Baney-Giampoala, Active member NJEA/NEA
Martha M Barroqueiro, Active member NJEA/NEA
Bette Bland, Active member NJEA/NEA
Patricia Grunther, co-chair Local Evaluations Committee NJEA/NEA
Sidra Sheikh, Active member AFT-NJ/AFT
Debbie Kammerman, Active member AFT-NJ/AFT
Justin Schleider, Active member NJEA/NEA
Susan D'Elia, Active member NJEA/NEA
Greg Wickenkamp, Active member NJEA/NEA
Joe Richard, Local Union Representative AFT-NJ/AFT
Katherine Ramos, Previous member None
Todd Wolfson, Active member AFT-NJ/AFT
Janet Offenbacker, Active member NJEA/NEA
Chantell Moncur, Active member AFT-NJ/AFT
Deanna Degraff, Active member and Local Union Representative NJEA/NEA
henry lesnick, Active member psc cuny
Kareemma Bernard-Rawls AFL-CIO CEO
Jared Ball
Frances B. Weldon M.A, CCC-SLP, Active member NJEA/NEA
Robert DeLude, Local Association Vice President NJEA/NEA
Jason Buell
Ikechukwu Onyema, Active member NJEA/NEA
Kristine L Sieloff, Member BTU Baltimore City Teachers Union-AFT

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