The Teachers’ Union Boss Wanted to Teach Me a Lesson. Here’s One for Her.

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Randi Weingarten wanted to teach me a lesson. I remember my mother wanting to teach me a lesson — or 10 — over time, but they were usually grounded in experience and truth.

Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), went beyond the pale this week. She called modern-day education reformers racists for working to help parents whose children are often stuck in the worst of schools and thereby relegated to third-class status in a society that values an educated citizenry.

And she disgraced all American teachers with her declaration that advocates and families advocating for various forms of school choice are just like Jim Crow–era segregationists, that they are “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation,” and that we are “hiding a dangerous ideological agenda.” The “real pioneers of school choice,” she said, are “the white politicians who resisted school integration.” A few days later, after she was summarily chastised by people on the left, on the right, and in the center, she doubled down.

I called for her resignation. She challenged me on Twitter:

Then she offered me a history lesson based on specious arguments made by the Center for American Progress (CAP). It goes something like this:

The deplorable segregation academies of the ’60s have created inequities in education that exist to this day. Any attempt to offset their effect by giving families most harmed by them and lacking power to rectify them financially or by moving into “better” attendance zones is a direct response to segregation.

Weignarten’s proffered history lesson is rooted in a bad chapter for America, one that people from all backgrounds, races, political parties, and nationalities have worked together to fight. But that has no bearing on present-day education reforms that wrest control of education from the very school districts that once led the charge to segregate schools. Educational choice puts power directly in the hands of the parents who have been relegated to segregationist housing patterns. Leaving students trapped in schools that were organized as a result of mandatory or de facto segregation — something that the unions and CAP endorse — is reprehensible and unjust.

Three modern-day civil-rights pioneers, Derrell Bradford, Howard Fuller, and Chris Stewart, make the case. “Low-income and working-class families need . . . the power to choose the right school for their children.” Moreover, they continue, “Our belief is grounded not just in our understanding that no one type of school is the right fit for every type of child, but in the frank, stark, brutal reality and history that colors the pursuit of education by Black people in this country.

“Some would have us stop advocating for all parent choice, including vouchers, and, instead, accept the limited options available to low-income and working-class Black families. We must reject those limits.”

Writing at National Review Online, Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute argues that at our nation’s founding, vouchers were designed to help the poor: “The long history of vouchers begins with Thomas Paine and John Stuart Mill seeking to help poor families to educate their children in the 18th and 19th centuries. The first major push to let American families send their children to schools of their choice using public funds was led by Catholics seeking to escape discriminatory public schools. . . . Afterward, even the liberals in Lyndon Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity turned to vouchers as a way to help black children suffering in segregated public schools.”

Vouchers have always had support from civil-rights supporters, Andy Rotherham, an assistant to the president for domestic policy in the Clinton administration, writes in U.S. News and World Report. And former Clinton policy director Berkeley law professor Jack Coons “saw vouchers as a way to equalize opportunity for the poor,” Rotherham notes. “So did Harvard sociologist Chris Jencks, whose ideas informed a now mostly forgotten Nixon-era federal school voucher pilot in Alum Rock, California. They, along with a host of other academics and advocates, saw choice as a tool of empowerment.”

Weingarten and the AFT deliberately ignore Milwaukee circa 1990, when Polly Williams, a state representative, led the fight to ensure that her “babies,” as she called her community’s kids, attending failing schools might have a leg up. A Democrat and a Black Panther, Williams found few allies among what she considered natural constituencies. But she teamed up with Fuller, the former Milwaukee public-school superintendent, and a diverse coalition including conservative Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, to launch the successful effort.

Soon afterward, Cleveland followed suit. Democratic city councilwoman Fannie Lewis saw the same inequities, social injustice, and failure in public schools. With Republican governor George Voinovich, she brought the Cleveland school-choice program to her entire state. The United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of that program in 2002.

This is the history lesson of the day. It’s the triumph of good over evil, David versus Goliath. White and black together have fought the laws — and won. These facts are indisputable. Why would Randi Weingarten seek to offend entire communities of parents and race-bait on this issue?

The answer lies in the numbers.

The AFT has been steadily losing members to retirement, to charter schools, to changes in state union laws, and to the fact that today’s teaching force is not your mother’s teacher. This generation wants to be free to live as they please. They are also digital natives, born amid unprecedented access to information, bypassing what used to be the only source of information about education: your union steward.

This is the real reason Randi Weingarten has picked a reprehensible fight. Teachers have started marching to the tune of a different drummer, and she’s looking for any way to bring them back. But one thing is becoming clear: Her fight is not theirs.

Retired Philadelphia-area union leader Ed Moffit put it best: “Teachers just want to do their job. We join the union because we live in a litigious society and we want protection should something happen. But the politics of the union are too much.”

Indeed, teachers are making their way to the Supreme Court once again to make the case that mandatory fees to unions they don’t agree with are unconstitutional. The backlash against comments from the AFT boss may just compel them forward faster.

Jeanne Allen is an entrepreneur, an innovator, and a leader. Her entire career has been devoted to education reform, and, as a result, she is the most recognized and respected expert, thought leader, speaker, and writer in the field. She founded the Center for Education Reform in 1993 and leads the nationwide fight to ensure that the bedrock of U.S. schooling is innovation, freedom and flexibility. She’s active on Twitter, at @JeanneAllen.

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