It’s hardly news that teachers’ union honchos oppose any type of school choice, especially the kind that lets public money follow a child to a public school. But while making her case recently, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten descended down a rabbit hole.
It started with an event on “school vouchers and racism” hosted by the AFT and the Center for American Progress, a leftist research and advocacy organization financially supported by both the AFT and the National Education Association. CAP had just released a report claiming that educational vouchers were born in the effort by Southern states to resist racial integration after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ruling. In what segregationists termed “massive resistance,” Virginia’s Prince Edward County closed its public schools in 1959, and then gave vouchers to white families, which were used to pay tuition at segregated private schools. This ugly case represents the “sordid history of school vouchers,” as CAP sees it—conveniently overlooking the G.I. Bill, the country’s first significant voucher program, which was signed into law in 1944, 15 years before Prince Edward County’s gambit.
Taking the podium just a few days after the release of the CAP report, Weingarten declared that the ideas and proposals of school-voucher advocates were “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.” She described the powerful teachers’ unions as “defenders of America’s public education system,” locked in a “David versus Goliath battle, and in this battle, we are all David.”
Weingarten’s outrageous comments did not sit well with school-choice advocates. Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, called Weingarten’s speech “not just ill-advised hyperbole, it is a deeply offensive, highly inflammatory insult to all the parents and people—of all races, backgrounds, and regions—who have worked to bring options, opportunities and reforms to an education system that has failed them for generations.” Kevin Chavous, founding board member of the American Federation for Children, said that Weingarten’s comments “spat in the face of every African-American and Hispanic child who’s trapped in a school that doesn’t serve [him or her] well.”
While Weingarten cites the segregationists of Prince Edward County, she declines to mention labor unions’ own racist history. As Herbert Hill wrote in Commentary in 1959, in various industries “trade unions practice either total exclusion of the Negro, segregation (in the form of ‘Jim Crow’ locals, or ‘auxiliaries’), or enforce separate, racial seniority lines which limit Negro employment to menial and unskilled classifications. . . . In the South, unions frequently acted to force Negroes out of jobs that had formerly been considered theirs.” Racism in unions was historically a much greater factor than it has ever been in the voucher movement.
Weingarten also ignores the popularity of private-school choice among minorities, the ostensible victims of these supposedly racist voucher programs. She is mum on the latest report from EdChoice’s Greg Forster, who regularly surveys the empirical research on private-school-choice programs. “Ten empirical studies have examined school choice and racial segregation in schools,” he writes. “Of those, nine find school choice moves students from more segregated schools into less segregated schools, and one finds no net effect on segregation. No empirical study has found that choice increases racial segregation.” Think Progress, a progressive news site associated with CAP, reports that American public schools are more segregated now than they were in 1968.
Indeed, government- and union-run schools are much more segregated than the voucher schools that Weingarten disdains. “Less recognized, but equally pernicious, is the structural segregation all across America, where zoned school systems maintain racial and economic segregation,” writes Peter Cunningham, who worked at the Department of Education during the Obama administration. Cunningham also pointed out that New York City, where Weingarten formerly ran the teachers’ union, has one of the nation’s most segregated school systems.
Weingarten engaged in a telling Twitter exchange with her nemesis, Education secretary Betsy DeVos. “@BetsyDeVosED says public $ should invest in indiv students,” Weingarten wrote. “NO we should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.” DeVos fired back: “They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than about individual students. They are saying that education is not an investment in individual students. They are totally wrong.” Weingarten and her cronies are more interested in keeping the government-union duopoly in place than in educating children. Protecting the system takes priority.
Responding to critics of her speech, Weingarten held her ground. “The negative reaction to the speech has been completely ideological, with personal invectives thrown at me, which reinforces my point that no amount of facts or evidence will sway voucher proponents from their agenda to starve public schools to the breaking point, then criticize their deficiencies and let the market handle the rest, all in the name of choice,” she said.
Weingarten has reason to be worried: with a pro-school-choice education secretary and looming Supreme Court decisions that could eradicate forced unionism and eliminate laws that states have used to thwart vouchers and other privatization programs, teachers’ unions face a considerable loss of power.
What Weingarten and her allies consistently overlook is that wealthy people will always have school choice. Parents of means can afford to move to an area with a superior public school, or they can send their kids to a private school. Poor parents don’t have these options, primarily because teachers’ unions fight furiously to prevent educational choice. It is no small irony that the organization howling loudest about racial inequality in education campaigns against the one policy that has been shown to ameliorate it.
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