DENVER — School’s out, but the battle between the teachers’ unions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over school choice isn’t taking a summer break.
Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers president, argued in a fiery speech Thursday to 1,400 union members that school-choice programs such as vouchers and tuition tax credits are rooted in segregation and racism.
“Make no mistake: This use of privatization, coupled with disinvestment are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation,” said Ms. Weingarten at the AFT meeting in Washington, D.C.
Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, called on Ms. Weingarten to resign over the comments, calling them “hateful” and “deeply offensive” to those who have backed school choice.
Ms. Weingarten fired back on Twitter: “Are you really calling on me to resign because I pointed out the segregationist history of private school choice.”
A staunch champion of school choice, Ms. DeVos began her fight “because she saw the inequalities in our education system,” said DOE press secretary Liz Hill.
She said school-choice programs “most benefit families from lower socio-economic backgrounds” and described the term “privatization” as a “scare tactic from those who are invested in defending the status quo at all costs.”
“Her life’s work is to help every student have access to a world-class education, regardless of their background, ZIP code or income,” said Ms. Hill.
Like Ms. Weingarten, Ms. DeVos spent Thursday rallying her base, framing her foes as “defenders of the status quo” and upholders of the “system” over students in remarks before the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.
“Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart,” said Ms. DeVos at the annual conference in Denver, which drew about 1,400 attendees.
She pointed to a tweet from Ms. Weingarten saying, “Betsy DeVos says public school should invest in indiv[idual] students. NO we should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.”
“I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor,” said Ms. DeVos. “They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s — than about individual students. They are saying education is not an investment in individual students. And they are totally wrong.”
At the AFT conference in Washington, D.C., Ms. Weingarten took issue with the word “choice,” saying it was “used to cloak overt racism by segregationist politicians like Harry Byrd, who launched the massive opposition to the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.”
“Make no mistake: The ‘real pioneers’ of school choice were white politicians who resisted school integration,” said Ms. Weingarten on Twitter.
On the contrary, said Ms. Hill, “School choice helps lift students up. It allows them to escape failing schools. It puts parents in control. And it levels the playing field.”
Despite staunch union opposition, Ms. DeVos said school-choice programs are spreading, citing this year’s passage of Kentucky’s first charter-school law and the North Carolina legislature’s override of the Democratic governor’s veto on Education Savings Accounts.
“These are just a few examples of school choice’s increasing momentum,” she said. “In the first six months of this year, 40 legislative chambers in 23 states have passed bills expanding school choice for students and their families.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Weingarten depicted the policy dispute as “a David versus Goliath battle. And in this battle, we are all David.”
“Yes, it’s exhausting,” she said. “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.”