Head of Powerful Teachers Union Blasts Republican Attempts to Gut Public Education | Education News

The head of one of the most politically powerful unions in the country blasted GOP efforts to dismantle public education amid mounting Republican-backed legislative attempts to expand private school vouchers, ban books and discussions about race, sex, gender and LGBTQ issues that she says are driving teachers away from an already wilting profession.

“In good times and bad, public schools are cornerstones of community, of our democracy, our economy and our nation,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in an enough-is-enough speech in Washington on Tuesday. “But some people want that cornerstone to crumble, and they’re wielding the sledgehammers.”

“Attacks on public education are not new,” she said. “The difference today is that the attacks are intended to destroy it. To make it a battlefield, a political cudgel.”

In a 45-minute speech, Weingerten drew a through line from former President Donald Trump and former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to the coronavirus pandemic to influential private school choice advocacy groups to GOP governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis and one of his most influential advisers, Chris Ruffo, who’ve effectively thrown accelerant on culture war issues to push their legislative agenda. The “organized and dangerous effort to undermine public schools,” she said, is eroding one of the most important pillars of U.S. democracy.

“The Betsy DeVos wing of the school privatization movement is methodically working its plan,” Weingarten said. “Starve public schools of the funds they need to succeed. Criticize them for their shortcomings.”

She continued: “Erode trust in public schools by stoking fear and division – including attempting to pit parents against teachers – replace them with private, religious, online and home schools, all toward their end goal of destroying public education as we know it, atomizing and balkanizing education in America, bullying the most vulnerable among us and leaving the students with the greatest needs in public schools with the most meager resources.”

The warning comes as public schools are at an inflection point in the U.S., facing declining enrollment, academic setbacks, and mental health and substance abuse challenges, the expansion of private school choice programs – like vouchers, education savings account and tax credit scholarships – and a shrinking workforce plagued by low pay and low morale.

From the fall of 2019 to fall 2020, total public school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12 dropped from 50.8 million to 49.4 million students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Prior to this period, total public school enrollment had increased between the fall of 2009 and fall 2019. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of students enrolled in private schools and the number of students who are home-schooled more than doubled.

One of the most acute threats to public education, Weingarten said, is the expansion of private school choice options currently sweeping GOP-controlled legislatures.

Earlier this year, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed legislation that established the country’s first universal private school scholarship program, which will allow all families to tap $8,000 in taxpayer funds to use for tuition. And on Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law the single largest expansion of private school vouchers by eliminating the program’s income eligibility cap.

This year alone, 29 additional state legislatures are considering bills to either create or expand existing private school choice programs, including in Texas, where Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is pushing an education savings account that would provide $8,000 in taxpayer funding for families to use to cover private school tuition and other education expenses.

“It’s an extremist scheme by a very vocal minority of Americans,” Weingarten said. “And it’s not what parents and the public want.”

Of course, Weingarten herself has been castigated by conservatives for inserting politics into K-12 education and bringing about the demise on her own, especially by pushing for schools to stay closed during the pandemic, they argue. Many of the large urban school districts whose educators are represented by AFT and where COVID-19 outbreaks were more severe were shuttered for in-person learning the longest, resulting in severe academic and mental health setbacks.

In fact, Rep. Brad Wenstrup, Ohio Republican and chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, on Tuesday called on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the AFT and 14 other non-governmental groups to provide documents and information related to their roles in the CDC’s COVID-19 school reopening guidance. He specifically requested transcribed interviews from Weingarten to investigate the union’s potential role in keeping schools closed longer than necessary.

Her name was also on the tongues of many Republicans on Tuesday during a House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing examining the “intended and unintended consequences” of closing schools.

That’s part and parcel, Weingarten argued, of the increasingly contentious culture wars.

“What started as fights over pandemic-era safety measures has morphed into fearmongering – false claims that elementary and secondary schools are teaching critical race theory; disgusting, unfounded claims that teachers are grooming and indoctrinating students; and pronouncements that public schools push a woke agenda, even though they can’t or won’t define what they mean; banning books and bullying vulnerable children; school board meetings descending into screaming matches.”

“Our public schools shouldn’t be pawns for politicians’ ambitions,” she said.

Over the last three years, legislators in 45 states proposed hundreds of laws to ban books from libraries and restrict what teachers can teach about race, inequality, gender, sex and LGBTQ issues, eliminate anything that’s considered critical race theory or diversity, equity and inclusion and roll back protections for transgender students and their access to things like sports.

The culture war legislation, Weigarten noted, has had a particularly severe impact on teachers – 400,000 of whom now leave the profession every year at a time when the educator pipeline is drying up.

“The persistent demonization and disrespect of teachers – from screaming matches at school

board meetings to the former secretary of state saying teachers teach ‘filth’ – have contributed to a culture of disrespect that seeps into our schools,” she said, referring to comments last year by Mike Pompeo.

Weingarten announced the creation of a “Freedom to Teach and Learn Hotline,” which she urged teachers and school staff to call to report instances in which they’re asked to remove books or told they can’t teach certain topics.

The path forward, she said, should focus on increasing access to community schools, which provide wraparound support for the families they serve – including things like physical, mental and dental health, access to food and shelter and adult job training and English language classes, as well as experiential learning, like career and technical education that gives students hands-on experience in a profession. The revival of the teaching profession through better pay and professional development, more autonomy, school infrastructure repairs and smaller class sizes, will be crucial, she added, as will continued outreach to parents.

The head of the 1.7-million member teachers union had the blessing of the Biden administration on Monday, with Cindy Marten, deputy assistant secretary of education, in the audience – the latest example of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona’s newly aggressive attitude in countering Republican attacks on the country’s public school system.

“I won’t sit idly when some try to attack our schools or privatize education,” Cardona tweeted during Weingarten’s speech, repeating what he told Politico in an interview in which he slammed privatization efforts.

The amped up rhetoric provides a glimpse into how threatening Democrats and their most powerful allies consider the current education politics landscape during a year in which roughly 30,000 school board seats are up for grabs and ahead of a 2024 presidential election that’s set to feature Trump and DeSantis.

“When we talk about politicization, when we talk about book banning, when we talk about Black history curriculum being picked apart – I think there are deliberate attempts to make sure that our public schools are not functional so that the private option sounds better,” Cardona said. “I don’t doubt that’s intentional.”

Bessie Venters

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