Educators, families and communities are in a David versus Goliath battle against powerful interests seeking to destroy public education and rip opportunity from children and families, AFT President Randi Weingarten proclaimed to more than 1,400 educators during her keynote address at the union's TEACH (Together Educating America's Children) conference.
Weingarten offered a stinging critique of the agenda of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other school privatization advocates and drew parallels between the history of school choice, which is rooted in segregation, and today's private school voucher movement. And Weingarten offered a path forward to both resist the attacks on public schools and reclaim the promise of public education for all children to meet their needs and aspirations.
"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.'… Decades ago, the term 'choice' 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."
Weingarten described how after the Brown decision, many school districts resisted integration, detailing the history of Prince Edward County, Virginia, where white officials closed every public school in the district and opened private schools with public money where only white parents could choose to send their children. These were places where AFT members sent resources and even set up schools for African-American students in church basements and public parks. And Weingarten made clear that, far from being the "pioneers of school choice," as DeVos labeled them, historically black colleges and universities actually arose from the discriminatory practices that denied black students access to higher education.
"Make no mistake: The 'real pioneers' of private school choice were the white politicians who resisted school integration," said Weingarten.
Weingarten said that today's voucher proposals have their insidious sides.
"After decades of experiments with voucher programs, the research is clear: They fail most of the children they purportedly are intended to benefit. … These choices do not increase student achievement. They do not reduce inequity or segregation. And they move us further away from the choice every child in America deserves—well-supported, effective public schools near their home."
Weingarten continued, "This privatization and disinvestment are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation. We are in the same fight, against the same forces who are keeping the same children from getting the public education they need and deserve. And what better way to pave the path to privatize education than to starve public schools to the breaking point, then criticize their shortcomings, and let the market handle the rest. All in the name of choice."
In the speech, Weingarten characterized DeVos as a "public school denier" and the most "anti-public education secretary of education ever." She detailed how her proposed budget cuts take "a meat cleaver to public education" by zeroing out resources for reducing class size, for teacher professional development, and for community schools and after-school and summer programs—all to fund tax breaks for the wealthy and increase funding for vouchers. She discussed how cuts to Medicaid would result in the loss of school nurses and health screenings, wheelchairs and feeding tubes, for our most vulnerable kids in the almost 80 percent of school districts that rely on those funds.
"But I haven't lost heart or faith, because, although we face formidable adversaries, we are David to their Goliath," said Weingarten, explaining that just as David beat the powerful Goliath and his army with a sling and five smooth stones, AFT members also have five smooth stones, or principles, that the AFT is translating into action.
"No matter where people are from, or their political persuasion, there is a common set of aspirations—for themselves and their families. When we connect on values—these values, these five stones—we win. We help make people's lives better, and we repair the common ground that has been jackhammered apart."
The five values Weingarten called on AFT members to unite their communities around include: 1) good jobs that pay a decent wage and provide a voice at work and a secure retirement; 2) healthcare so people are not one illness away from bankruptcy; 3) public schools that are safe and welcoming and prepare young people for life and citizenship, career and college (including making college affordable); 4) a strong and vibrant democracy (including a free press, independent judiciary, thriving labor movement, and the protection of the right to vote); and 5) safeguarded civil rights for all (fighting bigotry and discrimination—like the attacks on immigrants, Muslims and transgender kids, and the rising tide of anti-Semitism and racism).
Weingarten expanded on creating great neighborhood public schools and lifted up the great things already happening in public schools across the country—for instance, poetry slams, Socratic seminars, science fairs, speech therapy, students checkmating their chess coaches, and once-struggling students reading on grade level.
"Our public schools are filled with dedicated teachers, paraprofessionals and administrators who are doing their level best—despite never having enough funding, despite the relentless attacks, despite misguided policies gussied up as 'reforms,' despite the challenges children bring from home. … And with some key investments and the right strategies, we'll not just have the will, we'll have the way," said Weingarten.
Weingarten added, "We get that public schools are not perfect and every one doesn't always work for every one of its students. We know that schools in America have always been unequal, often based on race and class. … But I've never heard a parent say, 'That school doesn't work for my kid. So I want to engage in an ideologically driven market-based experiment that commodifies education and has been proven to be ineffective.'"
Instead, she said, parents want a neighborhood public school that works for their child, is safe, has adequate resources and small enough class sizes; they want their school to have music, art and science; they want their child to soar in challenging classes and get support when they struggle; and they want their child to fill the dinner table conversation with stories about what they did in school that day.
Weingarten also detailed the fierce opposition to the Trump-DeVos agenda. According to a poll recently commissioned by the AFT, 74 percent of voters oppose cutting education funding while reducing taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals. Seventy-six percent of voters say it is unacceptable that the Trump-DeVos budget takes away funding from public schools that serve poor children while increasing funding for private school vouchers and the expansion of charter schools.
"So as far as I'm concerned," Weingarten said, "the only choice is: Do we as a nation strengthen and improve our public schools, or don't we?"
Weingarten outlined what works to create great public schools—investment in and focus on the four pillars of powerful, purposeful public education: children's well-being, powerful learning, educators' capacity, and collaboration.
In a call to action, Weingarten highlighted the energy and activism since Election Day, framed the importance of elections, and offered guidance from Yale professor Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.
"[Snyder] reminds us that we can't take our institutions for granted. That dictators throughout history have built power by kneecapping trade unions and co-opting or undercutting public education," said Weingarten.
She continued, "Of course, our responsibility is to resist injustice, ... but it is more than that. It is to reclaim the future. Classroom by classroom. Community by community. … If I could ask you to do anything, it would be this: Tell your stories. Write to your local paper. Advocate for your students. Do it in public. Shine a light. Show the people here in Washington what's happening at home. Show them what a budget cut means in very human terms."
And in closing, Weingarten said, "By resisting injustice and reclaiming the promise of public education for all of our students, we will preserve our democracy. We will protect our most vulnerable. We will strengthen our communities. We will take on Goliath. And we will win."
[AFT press release]