For four years, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation for Teachers (AFT), tried her best to demonize Betsy DeVos, accusing the former Department of Education secretary at every turn of advancing a “reckless and extreme ideology” aimed at “privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America.” How rich, then, that just a few weeks after DeVos left office, Weingarten revealed that her core beliefs about parental choice pretty much sync with Public Enemy No. 1.
In a New York Times story, Weingarten noted she has friends and family who pulled their kids out of public schools in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic because remote learning didn’t work for them.
“They have a right to look out for their individual children,” Weingarten said.
Yes, they do. But, don’t they all?
The Betsy DeVosBetsy DeVosSchumer, Warren introduce bill calling on Biden to wipe out student loan debt Former Trump officials find tough job market Pardon talk intensifies as Trump approaches final 24 hours in office MORE worldview that we now know Weingarten subscribes to isn’t “reckless and extreme.” It’s decent and humane. And it’s hardly confined to DeVos. Choice enthusiasts of all political stripes have been stressing it for a half-century.
The difference is, the rainbow coalition that is the education choice movement also has been working to ensure all parents have the power to do what Weingarten’s friends and family did — that is, to choose the learning options they know are best for their children, instead of being stuck with what the state assigns.
Millions of parents need those options now more than ever. How twisted, though, that it’s often because of union leaders that they both need them and can’t get them. Teachers unions are a leading reason that parents across America can’t access the in-person learning they want for their kids. At the same time, it’s the teachers unions who, for decades, have been the roadblock to expanding choice.
In her moment of candor, Weingarten got sucked into the zeitgeist. The pandemic is showing parents who took education choice for granted why real power to access options is so vital. Poll after poll shows support for choice soaring. Most notably, that includes support among white, left-leaning, suburban parents who, in terms of choice opposition, are one of the few dominos left to fall.
I appreciate Weingarten’s timing. Lawmakers in at least 14 states are considering bills to start or expand vouchers, tax credit scholarships and/or education savings accounts. My home state is among them.
Senate Bill 48 would simplify Florida’s patchwork of choice scholarships, merging five into two, and converting four into education savings accounts (ESA). The fifth, the incredibly popular Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs, is already an ESA. (Full disclosure: Four of those programs are administered by Step Up For Students, the nonprofit I work for.) The bottom line is, even more Florida parents would have the flexibility they need “to look out for their individual children.”
I never thought I’d see the day when Randi Weingarten would be on the same page, even rhetorically, with the choice crowd. Then again, the choice movement has always had a big tent.
I suspect that politically, the AFT president would feel at home with many of the hundreds of thousands of parents, most of them Black and Hispanic, whose children participate in the nation’s biggest private school choice program, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The same goes for the more than 1,400 parents among them who are school district employees, including teachers.
Weingarten wouldn’t be the first labor leader to embrace choice, either. Cesar Chavez, the legendary founder of the American Farm Workers, was a strong supporter of a Chicano freedom school that bloomed in California in the 1970s — and, more broadly, for alternatives to district schools. Closer to home, our president at Step Up, Doug Tuthill, is a liberal Democrat and former president of two local teachers unions.
It’s not hard to see why support for choice cuts across race, class and political lines.
Randi Weingarten might have made a little news saying parents “have a right to look out for their individual children.” But she only said what everybody knows.
Ron Matus is director of policy and public affairs at Step Up For Students, a Florida nonprofit that helps administer five state choice programs, and a former state education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1.