Contrasting speeches: AFT’s Weingarten links school privatizers to segregationists; Trump Ed Secretary DeVos touts the privatizing cause

WASHINGTON—When AFT opened its semi-annual “Teach” conference in D.C. in late July, union President Randi Weingarten was everywhere – and she pulled no punches.

Weingarten’s keynote speech linked the so-called school privatization movement, featuring taxpayer-paid vouchers for parents of private school students, “choice” schools and similar schemes to the racists and segregationists of the 1950s and before.

Meanwhile, Trump Education Secretary Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos was nowhere near D.C. She was trashing teachers and touting “choice” as keynote speaker in Denver at the annual conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a secretive right-wing cabal that pushes privatization and charters and hates public schools and their teachers.

DeVos was greeted with rapture by the ALEC delegates, and protests, the day before, by several hundred Colorado teachers and their supporters. The speech contrasts were stark.

“We are going to hold Betsy DeVos accountable for her indifference, and for her attacks on our profession and on public education,” Weingarten declared. “But her attacks are not the only challenges we face. She’s not the only ideologue who wants to destabilize and privatize the public schools that millions of Americans value and rely upon.

“Let me be blunt: We are in a David-vs-Goliath battle. In this battle, we are all David.”

The battle for public schools predates Trump and DeVos, Weingarten said. It recalls the racism before and during Southern “massive resistance” to school desegregation that the U.S. Supreme Court ordered, starting in 1954. But it’s also class-based, Weingarten added.

“The moment we’re in is 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. And its intentions are often disguised. For example, take the word ‘choice.’

“You hear it all the time these days. School ‘choice.’ Betsy DeVos uses it in practically every sentence. You could show her, as I did, an award-winning robotics program, and she’d say ‘What about choice?’ which she actually said,” on a visit with Weingarten to a top-notch school in rural western Ohio. The school is unionized with AFT.

“But let me be really serious. Decades ago, ‘choice’ was used to cloak overt racism by segregationist politicians like Harry Byrd, who launched the massive opposition” to the desegregation decision. In Prince William County, Va., the white school board shut down all public schools for five years rather than obey the court, she noted. It funded whites-only segregation academies, leaving African-American children and families to fend for themselves. AFT sent funds, school supplies and volunteer teachers to Prince William, Weingarten noted.

“Make no mistake: The ‘real pioneers’ of private school choice were the white politicians who resisted school integration. But neither facts nor history seems to matter to this administration,” Weingarten deadpanned.

The real results? Studies show voucher programs don’t work, Weingarten said, and the schools – not the parents – can make the “choice,” to discriminate. And they do, she declared.

Disregarding the facts and the evidence, DeVos and GOP President Donald Trump want to increase federal funding for vouchers and “choice” by $250 million in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, and billions of dollars more after that, while cutting federal aid for public schools by $9 billion, Weingarten said. The Republican-run House Budget Committee agrees with them. So does the ideological GOP majority on the Education and the Workforce Committee.

That led Weingarten to urge her members to get out and stump for their kids: “If I could ask you to do anything, it would be this: Tell your stories. Advocate for your students. Do it in public. Shine a light. Use social media. Show the people here in Washington what’s happening at home. Show them what a budget cut means in very human terms.

“Yes, it’s exhausting. We have to fight harder and harder just to keep from losing ground. But I haven’t lost heart or faith, because, although we face formidable adversaries, we are David to their Goliath” in school fights and battles for universal health care, against “fraudu-lent for-profit colleges,” against income inequality, and for worker rights and voting rights.

“When officials far from the classroom care a whole lot about testing and test scores, but don’t give a damn about what our students really need, we are David to their Goliath,” Weingarten stated.

Weingarten admitted “public schools are not perfect,” but reiterated that race and class play big roles in that inequality. That still leaves teachers fighting against it – and their union fighting for them. She challenged the rest of the country to follow AFT’s lead.

“Do we as a nation strengthen and improve our public schools, or don’t we? We know what works to accomplish this.” Topping her list was to ensure kids “feel safe and valued” and providing wrap-around social services that the poorer 50 percent of the nation’s public school kids need, a longtime AFT goal, which the union has achieved successfully in several districts.

It also includes teaching “that engages students ,rather than emphasizing passing standardized tests, and training for teachers to improve themselves, not the right’s “infantili-zation of teachers and ‘teachers should be seen and not heard’ sentiment of people who make decisions affecting teaching and learning, but who haven’t spent 10 minutes in a classroom.”

DeVos covered none of that in her speech to ALEC, though. She touted choice and vouchers and said the AFT, other unions and teachers “defend the status quo.” Demonstrators outside disagreed, sharply. “This is not just about ‘We hate charter schools,’” Tay Anderson, who organized the event, told Denver’s CBS-TV affiliate. “We want equitable schools for every single student and not those who are just serving those at the top 1 percent.”

Source: PAI