Speakers on the opening night of Republican National Convention slammed teachers’ unions for hurting children, talked up school choice, and praised President Donald Trump’s record on education.
Among those who delivered speeches Monday evening was Rebecca Friedrichs, a long-time public school teacher in California who brought a legal challenge to certain fees collected by teachers’ unions. Although her case ended in a deadlock at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016, a subsequent complaint, in Janus v. AFSCME, led to a 2018 ruling that overturned the fees and dealt unions nationwide a significant blow.
Friedrichs said teachers’ unions helped push a “radical agenda” in classrooms, while simultaneously “trapping so many precious, low-income children in dangerous, corrupt, and low-performing schools.”
Donald Trump Jr. used similar rhetoric as he highlighted the president’s support for school choice, saying, “If Democrats really wanted to help minorities and underserved communities, instead of bowing to big money union bosses, they’d let parents choose what school is best for their kids.”
Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed at a Parkland, Fla., high school in 2018 in an incident that brought a flood of attention to school safety and gun control, took to the podium to denounce the Obama administration’s approach to school discipline. “I truly believe the safety of your kids depends on whether this man [Trump] is re-elected,” Pollack said.
And Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., told the RNC that “the closest thing we have to magic in America” is a good education, and said this philosophy inspired him to fight for school choice.
On its first night at least, the RNC struck a markedly different tone about education than last week’s Democratic National Convention, which focused on the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on schools.
‘Lenient Discipline Policies’
Not surprisingly, Friedrichs spent the most time talking about education among the speakers. She said that while Trump was freeing the nation’s schools from the grip teachers’ unions who have attacked him mercilessly and trying to bring school choice to low-income students, the “Obama-Biden administration” sided with unions that “are subverting our republic, so they undermine educational excellence, morality, law and order.”
“They’ve intentionally rewritten American history to perpetuate division, pervert the memories of our American founders, and disparage our Judeo-Christian virtues,” Friedrichs said of the unions. “Their lenient discipline policies morphed our schools into war zones, and they back ‘defunding police’ and abolishing ICE.”
Friedrichs now works at For Kids and Country, which aims to restore what it says is “proper authority, excellence and safety in America’s schools.” Earlier this year, she wrote a column in the Washington Examiner with the headline “How public schools groom kids for sexual predators like Epstein and Maxwell,” a reference to Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell.
American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten criticized Friedrichs’ convention comments:
Tonight, let by Rebecca Friedrichs, the Republican party went all in on vouchers and anti-union rhetoric. Let’s be clear: none of these ideas will help students, teachers, or our communities. #TrumpChaos
— Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) August 25, 2020
The National Center for Education Statistics found that after declining by nearly a third from 2005-06 to 2015-16, the number of “serious violent incidents” recorded at schools rose significantly from 2015-16 to 2017-18, although the number of such incidents remain below where they stood in 2005-06.
Republicans have long been critical of 2014 discipline guidance released by the Obama administration that aimed to address racial disparities in school suspensions and expulsions, saying it improperly took classroom decisions out of the hands of educators and made it harder to keep schools safe. Democrats defended the guidance as an important step forward for education civil rights that addressed unfair practices that hurt students of color.
Teachers’ and unions’ views about school discipline aren’t necessarily easy to categorize; some good background is here.
At the convention, Pollack channeled partisan criticisms of the guidance’s approach, saying that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland “knowingly ignored” red flags about the gunman accused of shooting his daughter Meadow because of lax discipline policies. (Special education services for the accused Parkland gunman had also lapsed.) Pollack praised the school safety commission Trump formed after the Parkland shootings; that commission’s report led to the Trump administration’s repeal of the Obama discipline guidance in 2018.
A 2016 report from the Obama White House highlighted school discipline practices in the Broward County, Fla., school district, which includes Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
“Far-left Democrats in our school district made this shooting possible because they implemented something they called ‘restorative justice,’” Pollack said. “This policy—which really just blames teachers for student failures—puts kids and teachers at risk and makes shootings more likely. But it was billed as a pioneering approach to discipline and safety. I was just fine with the old approach to discipline and safety. It was called discipline and safety.”
Battling for School Choice
Donald Trump Jr., who gave a speech criticizing “Soviet-era” schools and tenured teachers at the RNC in 2016, said Monday that “a great education cannot be the exclusive right of the rich and powerful” and pointed to his father’s position that “education access [is] the civil rights issue of not just our time—but of all time.”
Meanwhile, Scott recounted his own struggles in school, which included failing four subjects in his freshman year of high school. Finding a job and a mentor during his younger years, he said, helped him realize what a good education could provide.
He has authored several bills in the Senate promoting school choice. His most recent entry seeks to expand private school choice to parents whose children’s education has been hurt by the pandemic.
“That’s why I fight to this day for school choice ... to make sure every child, in every neighborhood has a quality education,” Scott said. “I don’t care if it’s a public, private, charter, virtual or home school. When a parent has a choice, their kid has a better chance. And the president has fought alongside me on that.”
Other speakers who promoted school choice included Trump’s former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley; Rep. Vernon Jones, a Democratic state representative in Georgia; and Kim Klacik, a Republican running to represent Maryland in Congress, who declared simply: “We want school choice.”
Image: Screen capture of Rebecca Friedrichs speaking at the Republican National Convention on Aug. 24, 2020.