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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Teachers Union Boss Skewers Betsy DeVos on Vouchers, Likening Them to 'Cousins' of Segregation

From USA Today

By Greg Toppo
July 20, 2017

In a blistering speech slated to be delivered to more than 1,400 teachers here on Thursday, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten likens U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to a climate-change denier, saying DeVos refuses to acknowledge "the good in our public schools and their foundational place in our democracy."


American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten 

In her speech, to be delivered at the union’s traditional summer conference, Weingarten says the Trump administration's school choice plans are secretly intended to starve funding from public schools. She calls taxpayer-funded private school vouchers, tuition tax credits and the like "only slightly more polite cousins of segregation."

An advance draft copy of the speech was obtained by USA TODAY.

Vouchers, tax credits and private, for-profit charter schools, she alleges, "hide a dangerous ideological agenda” that destabilizes public schools. “And when a family chooses a private school, in reality it is the school and not the family that makes the choice.”

In addition, Weingarten says, many private schools can — and do — discriminate against students because they’re exempt from federal civil rights laws.

A longtime Michigan school choice advocate and GOP mega-donor, DeVos has championed both public- and private-school choice, saying the ability of families to pick a school that suits their child is an elemental right.

During her Senate confirmation hearing last January, she asked lawmakers, “Why, in 2017, are we still questioning parents’ ability to exercise educational choice for their children?”

DeVos has trod a fine line on her judgments of public schools, saying that teachers "should be honored, celebrated, and freed up to do what they do best," but also that the current public system "is outdated and ultimately is not geared toward what is right and best for students."

She has, at various times, said switching schools should be as easy as choosing between ride-hailing services Über and Lyft or as easy as choosing a better mobile phone provider.

The Trump administration’s proposals for school choice have wrankled teachers’ unions, who say using public funds to send students to private schools — or to those in which large numbers of non-unionized teachers work — weakens the public system.

In her speech, Weingarten notes that school voucher plans in the South took root in the years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which struck down segregation. Rather than integrate schools, she points out, white officials in Prince Edward County, Va., closed the entire system and created whites-only private schools, paid for by taxpayer dollars.

The real pioneers of school choice, she says, are “the white politicians who resisted school integration.”

Weingarten also points out that recent research on vouchers, in particular, does not show promising results.

A June 2017 federally funded study on D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), a voucher that has been offered to families since 2012, found that it had a “statistically significant negative impact” on students’ math achievement and essentially no impact on reading after one year. Parents weren’t more satisfied with their children’s schools, but the program had a significant positive impact on parents’ perceptions of the safety of their child’s school.

The researchers noted cautiously, “Impacts could differ in later years. Also, the program operates only in the District of Columbia, and impacts could differ in other settings or locations.”

In Ohio, a 2016 study using 10 years of data found that when children transferred from public to private schools, their math scores dropped significantly. Reading scores dropped, but by not as much.

Research on vouchers elsewhere has shown sometimes unintended consequences: In Milwaukee, expansion of vouchers has kept area Catholic parishes alive, but it has also led to significant declines in churches’ donations, among other measures. One study of more than 70 parishes found that since 1999, the Milwaukee voucher program led to a $60 million decline in non-school church revenue.

Most Republicans and a handful of centrist Democrats, including the last two Democratic presidents, support school choice in the form of publicly funded but independently run charter schools — New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat often mentioned as a possible 2020 presidential candidate, last May was one of a small group of lawmakers named “Champions for Charters” by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

But Trump’s rise has fractured the bipartisan coalition supporting choice. The charter school alliance's president, Nina Rees, a one-time George W. Bush administration education official, wrote last month, "All of us need to understand that accepting the president’s support for charter schools doesn’t tie us to his whole agenda."

The U.S. Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Weingarten's remarks.

The Trump administration has asked lawmakers to give families billions in taxpayer-funded tuition and tax credits to help them send their kids to the school of their choice. On the campaign trail, Trump proposed $20 billion for school choice, and in his 2018 budget he proposed $1.4 billion in new spending on school choice.

But the proposals may go nowhere this year. House lawmakers last week released a spending bill that boosts the U.S. Education Department slightly but would zero out Trump’s proposals for private school choice.

Weingarten is not the only union official criticizing the new education secretary. Speaking to teachers in Boston earlier this month, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia called DeVos “the queen of for-profit privatization of public education,” saying that while the union would work with Republicans and Democrats on many issues, she said of the Trump administration, “I do not trust their motives. I do not believe their alternative facts. I see no reason to assume they will do what is best for our students and their families. There will be no photo-op.”

NEA actually took a hard line against charter schools during its Boston gathering, adopting a policy statement that said charters’ explosive growth has led to the rise of “separate and unequal systems” of schools that are “not subject to the same basic safeguards and standards that apply to public schools.”

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