School Choice Matters

By Larry Sand
August 21, 2018

From Puerto Rico to Los Angeles, teachers unions still try to deny parental choice at every turn.

In March, six months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the island’s lawmakers approved a bill that offered parents school choice options, including vouchers and charter schools. Hardly radical, the voucher program was capped at 3 percent of total student enrollment and charters could not exceed 10 percent of all public schools.

As day follows night, the teachers union in Puerto Rico filed a lawsuit arguing that it is unconstitutional to use public funds for private schools. And then in April, another bit of devastation hit the tiny island: Hurricane Randi blew in. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, still aglow after teacher strikes had crippled the educational process in West Virginia and Oklahoma, decided to direct Puerto Rican educators follow suit.

Weingarten was overheard on a train plotting a shutdown strategy, but the union boss wanted to make sure that it was not called a strike, claiming they never use the “S” word. Instead, she said the public should be told “We are a human shield for the kids … teachers are doing this in the stead of parents and kids.”

On August 10th, Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court threw out the lawsuit, allowing the two small choice programs to go on as planned. And as night follows day, the union called a strike to protest the choice law and a few other policy changes. The good news is that it was a one-day walkout which began and ended on August 15th.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, it’s no secret that the teachers union is in conflict with the school district, and a strike in October could follow. One bone of contention is the staffing of magnet schools, which are public schools of choice with specialized themes – performing arts, science and math,  those aimed at gifted students, et al. These schools can draw students from outside the normal zip-code mandated boundaries, are very successful, popular with parents in Los Angeles, and are rapidly expanding.

Since magnet schools offer a specialized curriculum, they need teachers who are well-versed in certain subject areas. So what’s the big deal? The United Teachers of Los Angeles is demanding that if a school or part of a school is to be converted from a traditional program to a magnet program, “certificated bargaining unit employees at the school shall have a right to assignment at the converted school and shall not be required to reapply for assignment to the school after conversion.” This is like saying that if you had heart palpitations, you would have to be treated by a dermatologist because the hospital couldn’t hire a cardiologist.

But of course the union is doing this for the kids!

And what would a month be without a new bogus study on school choice? The latest entry comes from the Network for Public Education, a union-friendly outfit that believes in zip code-mandated government schools über alles. The group solemnly reports that “fewer and fewer states are escaping school privatization’s reach.” I’ll save the details for another day, but for now, let’s just say the National Education Association’s report on the study makes it sound as if privatization is the equivalent of a bubonic plague that is rapidly ravaging our educational landscape.

But a poll from earlier this year paints a very different picture. According to EdChoice, only 33 percent of parents prefer that their child go to a public school, yet nationwide 83 percent of kids actually do. While 42 percent of parents would prefer to send their child to a private school, only 10 percent do. Also, a recent American Federation for Children poll, conducted by a Democratic polling firm, showed that 63 percent of likely voters support school choice, and among those most in need, the numbers are higher, with 72 percent of Latinos and 66 percent of African Americans favoring it.

In addition to the above, the survey found that 54 percent of Democrats support school choice. In our ultra-politically polarized time, this is very important. School choice has become a truly bipartisan issue, with more and more liberals sticking up for kids and taking on the teachers unions. In an eloquent and powerful piece, Catherine Durkin Robinson, who self-identifies as a “militant advocate, organizer and member of the Democratic Party for 30 years,” has quit her party. She deplores the fact that the Dems toe the teachers union party line because the union provides hefty campaign contributions to them. “This movement has helped me look closer at my side of the aisle. I’m so very disappointed in a party that refuses to fight for the people who need it most – children struggling to break free from generational poverty. Education is the most reliable way to do that. Democrats are blocking the schoolhouse door.”

If Ms. Robinson is any indication, the unions’ loss in the Janus case may just be the beginning of a descent that not even Hurricane Randi will be able to manipulate.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.