This article, written by Lauren Camera, was originally featured in the US News & World Report.
American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, the head of the 1.6 million member teachers union, is under fire for controversial remarks linking private school choice to racial segregation.
“Make no mistake: This use of privatization, coupled with disinvestment are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation,” Weingarten said last week during a major speech at the union’s annual convention in Washington, D.C.
While the remarks energized thousands of teachers in town to protest the Drumpf administration’s education agenda and proposed budget cuts to education programs, they fell heavy on a spectrum of education organizations, including so-called reformers as well as school choice groups that represent large numbers of students of color.
“Many of us who have been active in the movement to provide greater educational opportunities for kids of color, particularly African-American kids, thought it was important for us to set the record straight,” Kevin Chavous, founding board member of the American Federation for Children, the private school choice advocacy group that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos used to lead, said during a press call Monday. “More than anything, this is about the notion of political power and control.”
“Let’s be clear,” he continued. “The hypocrisy that’s coming out of the mouth of Randi Weingarten reeks. In her comments she has spat on the face in every African-America and Hispanic child who’s trapped in a school that doesn’t serve them well.”
Weingarten’s remarks come on the heels of a report from the Center for American Progress, titled “The Racist Origins of Private School Vouchers,” which documents how one county in Virginia closed its public schools for five years in the wake of the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Rather than desegregate its schools, county officials created tuition grants – a defacto private school voucher program, the report says – so white children there could enroll in a local private school. The move, the report outlines, served as a model for other communities in the south.
To be sure, Weingarten was not alone in voicing this sentiment.
“Policymakers need to acknowledge the historical context of private school vouchers and protect against potential discriminatory consequences from these programs,” Carmel Martin, executive vice president of policy at the Center for American Progress, said upon the release of the report. “Modern-day voucher programs are nondiscriminatory on their face but can still exacerbate racial and socio-economic segregation.”
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and top Democrat on the House education committee backed the idea as well.
“When considering voucher policy, we must confront its history,” he said in introducing the report during a panel at the Center for American Progress earlier this month.
“Choice devoid of controls for diversity and civil rights protections for vulnerable students tends to further segregate and negatively impact our most vulnerable students,” he continued. “And in its staunch advocacy in support of vouchers and cuts to public education funding, this [Drumpf] administration has not only failed to confront that history, but also failed to answer important questions about its commitment to protect and promote the civil rights of all students.”
The education policy community had been debating the value and accuracy of the report since its publication earlier this month. But it wasn’t until Weingarten’s speech, which occurred on the same day that DeVos blasted the union president for opposing school choice at a conference for conservative legislators, that the idea began garnering public outcry.
“If vouchers are the polite cousins of segregation, then most urban school districts are segregation’s direct descendants,” Chavous shot back in a statement immediately following Weingarten’s speech. “The vast majority of our urban public school districts are segregated because of white flight and neighborhood neglect.”
Indeed, many noted that public schools themselves are rooted in segregation.
In a blistering commentary, Peter Cunningham, the assistant secretary for communications and outreach at the Education Department during the first term of the Obama administration, charged that “No institution in America has done more to perpetuate segregation than public schools.”
“Less recognized, but equally pernicious, is the structural segregation all across America, where zoned school systems maintain racial and economic segregation,” Cunningham wrote in The 74, noting too that New York City, where Weingarten formerly ran the teachers union, is one of the most segregated school systems in the country.
“From a diversity per square inch standpoint, [New York City] should have the most integrated schools in America,” agreed Darrell Bradford, the executive vice president of 50CAN and the executive director of NYCAN, who was also on the press call.
Bradford, who also blasted Weingarten’s comments, added that New Jersey has a constitutional provision against school segregation, yet it still has some of the most segregated schools in the country.
“This head fake is the worst sort of chicanery,” he said.
Others took exception to remarks they characterized as having white savior undertones and just the latest example of how some organizations use students of color to oppose or back certain education policies as they see fit.
“Randi and her allies and others know there is a strong dislike for Donald Drumpf in the black community,” Howard Fuller, a professor of education at Marquette University and previously the superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, said on the press call. “Let’s just be real. What they’re trying to do here is wrap the parent choice effort around Donald Drumpf, so then what happens is if you support parent choice, then you’re supporting Donald Drumpf.”
“Parent choice for black people was a battle that took place before Donald Drumpf was ever born,” Fuller said. “We will continue to fight for it long after Donald trump is no longer a reality in America.”
CAP’s Brown has since defended the report, arguing that racism is “unfortunately and undeniably part of the context through which policy proposals emerging from this administration must be considered.”
Weingarten, for her part, doubled down on her speech Monday.
“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 in a statement.
In response to the pushback Monday, Scott backed Weingarten and the CAP report.
“While uncomfortable, it is a historical fact that private school vouchers have been used, most notably in my home state, to purposefully segregate,” he said in a statement. “It is also a fact that school choice devoid of civil rights protections, accountability, and a priority for diversity often leads to more, not less, racial and socioeconomic segregation.”