School choice’s strange bedfellows

By Larry Sand
December 4, 2018

The move to educational freedom brings together some unlikely allies.

Shortly after the general election, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten was ecstatic. Writing in The New York Times, she insisted that there was a “realignment in the electorate.” She also claimed that “voters responded to a decade of disinvestment in public education and the Trump administration’s assault on public education and students.”

And then there is reality. While to be sure Democrats made gains in many places, absent the House of Representatives, Republicans are still in charge, controlling 30 state legislatures, while the Dems control just 18. There are 27 Republican governors and 23 Dems, and the GOP still controls the U.S. Senate 53-47. 

As for the “assault on public education,” this is a blatant snipe at Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has the temerity to want to give parents a greater choice as to where to send their kids to school. It’s true that Wisconsin governor and choice champion Scott Walker lost his bid for a third term to Tony Evers, a man who will try to strip vouchers from nearly 30,000 Milwaukee families that use them to attend private schools. But as president of the American Federation for Children John Schilling writes in National Review, choice did very well at the ballot box across the nation. His organization participated in 377 state races to support pro–school choice candidates in 12 states, and won 77 percent of them. He adds that there are now pro-school choice governors and state legislatures in most states in the country.

Perhaps the most dramatic victory for educational freedom was in Florida, where Republican pro-choice candidate Ron DeSantis defeated Andrew Gillum who, if elected, would have tried to eliminate Florida’s wildly popular tax credit scholarship program. It was a very close race, and as The James Madison Institute’s William Mattox writes, about 100,000 African-American women unexpectedly chose DeSantis over the black Democratic candidate. In a close election, “school choice moms” apparently gave the Republican the victory.

The Gillum loss stunned many pundits, but it should not have. The Florida program, which focuses on high-needs students, has a 90 percent parent-approval rating and saves taxpayers money. And choice’s popularity is gaining elsewhere. The most recent Education Next national survey shows that 54 percent of those polled support “wider choice” for public-school parents by “allowing them to enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition.” That’s a 9 percent increase over last year.

Clearly Democrats are split on this issue. While some are pro-choice and in favor of other reforms reviled by the teachers unions, most still toe the union line despite the fact that the many poor and minorities in their constituency are at odds with NEA/AFT’s adamant commitment to the status quo. Liberal Democrat Connecticut Governor Dannell Malloy recently stated, “Democrats who on other issues would stand strong against any discrimination, against any disparate outcomes, found that supporting their local teachers or their local board of education was an acceptable excuse to accept (sic) what we know is not tolerable, that poor children and black children and brown children do not get the education or the opportunities they deserve. He added that progressive reformers need to hold Democrats accountable when they become “weak-kneed” and “fold to teachers.”

And now liberal TV host Roland Martin, whom no one will confuse with Ronald Reagan, has mounted a 10-city tour in conjunction with The 74, a non-partisan education news site. They are launching “School Choice Is the Black Choice” whose purpose is to “engage black families on issues of educational equity, student achievement, and parent involvement.”

Recently on Fox Business Network, Betsy DeVos ripped into the teachers unions, charging that they have a stranglehold “on many of the politicians in this country, both at the federal level and at the state level, and they are very resistant to the kind of changes that need to happen.”

While her statement is like saying that water is wet, Randi Weingarten went into harrumph-overdrive and fumed, “We are fighting for the safe and welcoming public schools that kids deserve, health care protections so people aren’t one pre-existing condition away from bankruptcy, affordable college without life-burdening student debt, and decent wages. Since she is against all of that, Betsy is attacking the unions that create a voice for teachers to advocate on these issues.”

Blah. Blah. Blah.

With the likes of Betsy DeVos and Roland Martin making common cause, Weingarten’s prattle will have less and less heft. And the children of America who are stuck in failing schools are rejoicing.

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.