WASHINGTON – Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, argued that school choice and voucher programs wrongly create “winners and losers.”
She lamented that supporting school choice programs has led to attempts to establish “an alternative system that is used to undermine public schools.”
“There’s been the kind of policy that creates, in some ways, winners and losers and you see it in terms of school choice and charter schools and vouchers and things like that,” Weingarten said during a recent conference call organized by The Jewish Democratic Council of America on education policy in the Trump administration.
“There are some people who came to this totally because of legitimate frustration that said ‘we can’t shake the system up enough – we need to have alternatives to the system.’ And, frankly, some of those people were people like my predecessor, Al Shanker, who said ‘we hate bureaucracy – can’t we do things like charter schools or other kinds of alternatives where teachers and parents have a right to actually figure out what they want for schooling and make it an incubator,’ and so if something really works then you bring it to the main system,” she added.
Weingarten said advocating for new ideas in education has been “hijacked” as a way to convince states to move funds away from public schools and into other education programs.
“So, I understand there are folks who are saying let’s try something new, and I agree with that. What has happened, unfortunately, is that has gotten hijacked to having an alternative system that is used to undermine public schools across the country and has been used to try to divest or defund public schools, and that is what we are opposed to,” she said.
“We need to actually make sure that there’s an investment for all kids, particularly the kids who need it most. And we have to try and make sure that states actually provide the resources that kids need for the things that kids need,” she added.
Over the last 10 years, Weingarten said, there has been an “unholy alliance of people who want to both privatize and create austerity gaining or coming together in states like Arizona and West Virginia and Oklahoma, and using the argument that schools should be better, therefore, let’s have alternatives, and at the same time divesting the schools from the resources that they need.”
According to Weingarten, 25 states still spend less money on public education today than they did before the 2008 financial crisis, which she attributed to the reason the teacher strikes in West Virginia and other states occurred.
“Even as the economy has gotten better in these places, what happened was that tax cuts became the priority, not an investment in schools. And that is why you had teachers on food stamps and why you had teacher pay being frozen for 10 years or because of the high cost of health insurance, their pay going down,” she said.
Describing the AFT’s “position in terms of school safety,” Weingarten said her organization is working on “ensuring” that guns are not in schools.
“Schools need to be safe and welcoming communities. The worst thing you do is you actually introduce more guns in schools. We need to actually make sure that kids feel like schools are safe sanctuaries, but it’s the same kind of mentality that says people should be fending for themselves as opposed to schools being communal institutions and organizations,” she said.
Weingarten said the Trump administration seems to be more focused on what the NRA and gun manufacturers want than “what parents want” for school safety.
“You have to make sure there are mental health services for kids and not services strictly for kids that have special needs,” she said. “Kids need to feel safe at school, emotionally and physically, as do teachers and the broader community.”
Weingarten suggested more “red flag” laws so that teachers and parents are able to report suspicious behavior of certain students, which could lead to “extraordinary orders of protection” being issued.
“There could be ways of trying to get these kinds of orders of protection that restrict for a temporary period of time people from having these [military-style weapons],” she said.
Weingarten also said that “every time you do more and more of the safety protocols” such as active-shooter drills, locks on doors and adding metal detectors, “you’re also moving schools away from being part of the community.”