Former Attorney General Eric Holder delivers address at Teachers College commencement at Columbia University on May 15, 2018. (Photo by Dasheng [Jonathan] Zhang)

Eric Holder, attorney general under President Barack Obama and the first African American to hold the job, told graduating seniors at Teachers College at Columbia University that educators who have been protesting in recent months for better pay and more school funding are “right” and that they should keep pressing for better conditions for their students.

Holder, who was attorney general from 2009-2015, is a graduate of Columbia University and its law school, said that it is unfortunate that U.S. education is given short shrift in national discussions about national priorities:

“Why do politicians advocate for more guns in schools, but not more books? When are we going to stop talking about Tweets and start focusing on what I believe is the administration’s total lack of capacity and ability to better our educational system?”

The Obama administration did in fact make education reform a priority, but the policies it pursued — including the Common Core State Standards and the use of student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers  — were highly controversial. In fact, they caused so much consternation among teachers that the National Education Association, the largest teachers union, called for the resignation of Obama’s first education secretary, Arne Duncan.

In his speech on Tuesday, Holder stood squarely with teachers who have protested in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and other states. Here’s the text of his speech:

Thank you, Professor Rebell and Provost James, for that kind introduction.  It is a pleasure to be here today with all of you.  And it is always a deep privilege to come back to my alma mater, to this Cathedral that for personal reasons is very special to me and to be always able to call this neighborhood home.  My years at Columbia meant a great deal to me.  I count the seven years that I spent in Morningside Heights to be among the great blessings of my life.

I am honored to stand with you – and with so many proud parents, siblings, teachers, mentors and friends – as we celebrate this year’s graduates.  To the members of the Class of 2018, congratulations.

The diplomas you have received represent far more than the years of study at one of the country’s finest institutions.  They also represent the commitment of everyone who has believed in your potential.  They represent your own perseverance.  And they represent the the critical role you have chosen for yourself ‒ to make better our nation by being educators, life shapers and policymakers.

In every way and in every era the future of America relies on its teachers.  Education is opportunity, education is power, and education leads to personal and national success.  Yet the United States continually lags behind many countries in educational commitment and achievement.  Every three years, the Programme for International Student Assessment measures reading ability, math and science literacy, and other key skills among 15-year-olds in dozens of developed and developing countries.  The most recent PISA results placed the United States 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science.  This is simply unacceptable and must be changed.  We must do better by our students.

A week ago today, we celebrated Teacher Appreciation Day.  This year that day came in the midst of a movement — a movement that began when teachers in West Virginia walked out of their classrooms to protest low wages, rising health care costs and, critically, lack of support for the educational needs of their students. That movement has spread to several other states where teachers are fighting not just for fairer wages that value their contributions to our nation but also increased spending to enhance the educational experience of our country’s students.

Let me be very clear.  These teacher walkouts and protests are in the finest tradition of positive social movements.  The teachers are right.  This must remain a movement and not just be a moment.  Let me clear again:   I stand with and support those teachers in their struggle for our youth.

An uncaring status quo and the politicians who comprise it will not be moved without the kind of righteous pressure that these protests represent.  For too long we have turned a blind eye as a nation towards the needs and frustrations of our teachers.  The national average salary for teachers is just $58,000 and educators receive far less in far too many places.  Teachers, given their critical role in society, must be appreciated in a material way to a far greater degree.

But it doesn’t take a comparison of salaries and pension plans to appreciate that education and teacher empowerment take a backseat in our recitation of national priorities.  How many times have you seen federal or state legislators demand increased teacher pay and adequate supplies in schools?  Why do politicians argue vociferously for guns in schools, but not for more books?  When are we going to stop talking about tweets and start focusing on an administration’s total lack of capacity, of ability, to better our education system?

Education reform — so sorely needed — is not a focus in our culture, in too many of our communities, and in too many of our governments.  So in addition to your traditional educational responsibilities you must be part of the solution to a problem that has been ignored for far too long, has negatively impacted far too many lives and finally has the attention of the nation. It’s up to you to be a part of the solution.  You have to educate and as John Lewis says, “Make good trouble.”

As the people who will be educating  our nation and therefore shaping our future, you already carry so much of our country’s burden.  You are already being asked to do so much for too little.  But I ask you to do one more thing:  be at the forefront of those policy changes that will affect lasting change.  Change the culture of our country, so education is prioritized above all.  And help end those inadequacies in education that cement disparities in wealth, health, and success.

And, as someone who has spent a lifetime working in various facets of the criminal justice system, I ask that you not forget the need for education there.  In this country, all children deserve equal access to a high-quality education.  And this is no less true for children in the juvenile justice system.  We need to find ways to ensure that system-involved youth throughout the country can imagine different futures for themselves — and then prepare for those futures by laying the groundwork of a successful path forward.

We must reach out to — and value — young Americans who probably haven’t gotten the education they deserved both before and while they were involved with the juvenile justice system.

As I said many times during the years I served as attorney general, we will never be able to incarcerate our way to better outcomes, a stronger nation, or a brighter future.  For youth especially, reducing contact with the justice system through better education is the best hope for positive outcomes and for countering the economic challenges to state and local budgets posed by high levels of incarceration.  We need to work tirelessly — with you all leading the charge — to ensure that every young person who’s involved in the system acquires or retains access to the quality education they need to rebuild their lives and reclaim their futures.

Quality education is, and will always be, an essential component in preventing delinquency and crime.  It can empower, engage, and transform a young person’s view of him — or herself.  And it can broaden opportunities, raise expectations, and elevate every child’s sense of his or her place in the world.

I know that I have asked much of you today.  This country has always asked perhaps too much of people who sat in the same seats you occupy today. But you would not have chosen this profession unless you cared, unless you wanted to be a force for change, if you did not have faith in your abilities to motivate people.  These are the qualities of leaders.   And that is what you all are as shown by the achievement we celebrate today: graduating from the nation’s finest college of education.  You are the best and the brightest.  You are superbly trained.

You have the ability — I would say the responsibility — to do great, transformative things.  Success for you will not be measured by whether you did well but by whether you did good.  Success will not only be measured by the societal changes you bring about but also by the individual lives you impact.  Everyone can point to teachers in their lives who made a substantial difference — from kindergarten to graduate school.  And so it must be with you.

Understand that in every day with every student you have the chance to make that substantial difference.  That is an awesome opportunity that comes with substantial pressure.  But you are graduates of Columbia.  You are now part of a great tradition of educators who have met the challenges of their time.  It is now time to make the coming era yours by meeting the challenges of your time.  This nation is capable of — and has done — great things.  It need not be made great again. It already is.

And yet our country is still in the process of becoming that more perfect union.  You can and must be leaders in that effort.  Do not defer to those in other professions who for too long have dominated policy determinations.  It is time — it is past time — for educators to be in the front lines of that decision making.  So be present.  Be heard.  Be persistent.  You will be effective.

In closing, I want to commend you all for your commitment to the cause of education and for your unrelenting perseverance in a field that is so critical, yet so undervalued.  Education needs to be more than a national priority.  To me, it is also a moral imperative, a true measure of a society’s worth.  I am hopeful that you will elevate it as such for our entire nation.  Congratulations again, and best of luck as you embark on this truly good fight.

Now get out there and change the world!