In a fiery speech, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, condemed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ school choice proposals, calling them “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.”
She told teachers at the AFT Teach Conference in Washington that the country is facing “the result of an intentional, decades-long campaign to protect the economic and political power of the few against the rights of the many. It has taken the form of division—expressing itself as racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, and homophobia,” she said. “And its intentions are often disguised. For example, take the word ‘choice.’”
DeVos and President Donald Trump have proposed major school choice initiatives in their education budget proposal, including a $270 million investment in a program to research and promote school vouchers and $1 billion in Title I funding that would be earmarked as grants designed to promote public school choice. Those initiatives are not included in the House’s education budget plan that was just passed by the House appropriations committee. The House bill would cut $2.4 billion from the Department of Education’s budget; less than the $9.2 billion reduction proposed by the president.
“What better way to pave the path to privatize education than to starve public schools to the breaking point, then criticize their shortcomings, and let the market handle the rest? All in the name of choice,” Weingarten said. “That’s how a democracy comes apart.”
A new policy brief, referenced by Weingarten in her speech, highlighted examples of how school vouchers were deployed during the Jim Crow era to perpetuate segregated school systems. As my colleague Arianna Prothero wrote, current voucher programs are not race-based and are often geared toward helping low-income students afford private school tuition. But the brief’s authors wrote that even these current programs could exacerbate racial and socioeconomic segregation, which Weingarten echoed in her speech.
Vouchers, she said, “fail most of the children they purportedly are intended to benefit.”
After her remarks, the Center for Education Reform, a school choice advocacy organization, issued a statement calling for Weingarten’s resignation. Her characterization of school choice, CEO Jeanne Allen said, “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.”
Teachers, Allen continued, should “consider whether this is the type of language and leadership they want as being representative of their views and voice.”
In a series of tweets, DeVos pushed back against Weingarten’s criticism of DeVos’ position that public money should be invested in individual students.
"[AFT has] made clear that they care more about the system than about individual students. They are saying education is NOT an investment in individual students. And they are TOTALLY wrong,” DeVos wrote. “What, exactly, is education if not an investment in students?”
This isn’t about school “systems.” This is about ind. students & families. Schools are at the service of students, not the other way around.
-- Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVosED) July 20, 2017
In April, Weingarten and DeVos met to tour a rural Ohio district together. It was the first—and so far, only—time they’ve spent time together. In a press briefing after her speech, Weingarten said during that school visit, DeVos kept bringing up school choice.
“I frankly think my impressions of her have changed for the worse since that trip,” she said.
Since then, she said, DeVos asked Weingarten to visit a school with her. Weingarten said she accepted, and their officers went back and forth trying to set a date—until DeVos pulled out of communications. The two have not been in touch since, Weingarten said.
“She kept saying, ‘I want to find common ground.’ Her staff kept saying she wants to find common ground. I’m like, fine. I have a judiciary obligation [to meet with her],” she said.
But, Weingarten continued, “don’t do a photo op with me. That’s not who I am. We are dead serious about trying to make schools better for kids. ... I’ll go anywhere and meet with anyone to make things better, but don’t pretend and [then] do exactly what you want to do to undermine public education.”
Earlier this month, Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, said there would be no photo op between the NEA and DeVos. She told my colleague Stephen Sawchuk that “there is no reason to trust this woman. There is no reason to trust how they would characterize a meeting with me.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.