Public education is under attack, but the public is coming to its defense

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten says Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a serious threat to public education. DeVos supports a proposal to cut her own agency’s budget 14 percent ($9 billion).

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten was in Portland April 25 to deliver the inaugural “Margaret Hallock lecture”  — a new series sponsored by the University of Oregon Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics, named for retired longtime labor educator Margaret Hallock. Below is her speech, on “The Future of Public Education,” edited for length.   

As the head of the teachers union, I sit at the nexus of two institutions vital to fostering broad access to economic and educational opportunity–our system of public education and the labor movement.

Public education and labor unions are the gateways to the middle class. They are foundation of a just society and vibrant democracy. And they provide paths to counter the lack of economic security and opportunity that is tearing at the fabric of our society.

Unions don’t just benefit union members and their families. We advocate for policies that benefit all working people—like increases to the minimum wage, expanding access to healthcare, and adequate support for public schools and public services. Unions are a key driver of voice and fairness; equity and opportunity. 

The AFT and our affiliates use collective bargaining to secure fair pay, benefits and working conditions. We always will. But we are also using collective bargaining to pursue a quality agenda to move ever closer to our goal of an excellent, equitable system of public schools.  

I don’t need to tell you that we’re not there yet. One reason is that self-described reformers have successfully promoted failed approaches that have not worked here or abroad—top-down, test-based accountability; privatization; school closures; competition; and firing rather than developing teachers. Another is that America has a shamefully high child poverty rate. Half of the children who attend public schools live in poverty, and the achievement gap mirrors this economic gap. 

But American public schools are not the failures that anti-public education ideologues portray them to be. Despite children’s growing needs, and despite 23 states STILL spending less on K-12 education than before the Great Recession, a number of indicators—like drop out rates and high school graduation rates—are moving in the right direction. And the wealthiest students in our public schools do as well as the highest scoring students in the world. But we’re not satisfied. And we won’t be satisfied until we do what we do in our best schools in all our schools—for all children. 

Trump and DeVos: existential threat to public education

Until now, the conversation has been about how to do that—to improve public schools. People might disagree about how to do it, but not whether it was the right goal. 

Today, however, with Donald Trump in the White House and Betsy DeVos as his secretary of education, their focus is on abandoning public education as a civic institution and value. It’s not overblown to say they pose an existential threat to the public schools that 90 percent of American children attend and depend on. 

DeVos has spent decades in her home state of Michigan working to defund, destabilize and dismantle public schools. And President Trump has given her a platform to try to do the same to the nation’s public schools. They really believe privatization is the be-all and end-all…that education is a commodity to be governed by the market as opposed to valuing public education as a public good. And facts or history or student need be damned. Why else would DeVos in her first week say that HBCUs were the pioneers of school choice? Or that schools are like the taxi industry? No Betsy… HBCUs were established because of discrimination – the Jim Crow prohibitions of students of color being allowed to go to university. And no Betsy, public education is not like Uber at all. 

Secretary DeVos has called public schools a “dead end” and said that she wasn’t “sure how they could get a lot worse.” I call her a “public school denier”—there’s really no evidence that can change her mind. I saw that up close and personal in a school visit we did together last week in Van Wert, Ohio… a very Republican area that voted for Trump but love, love, love their public schools. But, just like we won’t let people deny climate change, we won’t let her deny that public education is a foundation of our democracy. She needs to be held accountable. 

That’s why we invited her to this rock ribbed Republican area to show that support for public school transcends politics.  They know that public education is a driver of opportunity and a foundation of democracy and they’ve made their public schools the center of community. That’s what we wanted to showcase to DeVos. 

What we found in Van Wert, Ohio

In the county’s elementary school, 60 percent of the students live below the poverty line. But Van Wert’s youngest learners get a strong start through the district’s strong early childhood education programs and literacy specialists to help struggling readers become successful readers (paid for by federal title I funds which the Trump administration wants to use instead for vouchers and privatization). We saw a community school that helps the kids most at risk of dropping out stay on a path to graduation. We saw great examples of project-based learning, like Van Wert High School’s robotics team, which won the state robotics championship this year. Or Mr. Hoverman’s 5th grade class studying about kids their age in the depression. Or the high school students using the same We The People curriculum (newer edition of course) I used with my students at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn. 

Van Wert’s public schools clearly are not a dead end. They have a 96 percent graduation and attendance rate. Seventy-five percent of graduates go on to a 2- or 4-year college, the teaching force is deeply dedicated, and people move to Van Wert because of the public schools. 

The teachers and staff in the schools we visited are proud of the important work they do, but they are tired of the attacks and ignorance about public schools. A teacher told me, “There’s a misconception that public schools are broken and that comes from people who don’t know what is happening in public schools.” Another said that “The people best equipped to teach kids are in public schools right now and we just need the resources to do our jobs.” 

Not even Betsy DeVos could deny the hard work and successes she saw in Van Wert—typical of schools throughout the country. The visit also made clear that resources matter. As Jen Arend, a literacy specialist at Van Wert’s early childhood center, told the New York Times, she wanted DeVos to see that “we’re more than a line item in the budget”. 

Parents and students made the case about why resources are vitally important. We heard from students presenting on their senior project in which they fill backpacks full of food for hungry kids and families. As part of their work, they mapped out other supports and services in the community—including the YMCA. That’s when I leaned over to DeVos and told her the services the Y provides are exactly what the federal funding she wants to cut supports. 

DeVos couldn’t deny the great work in Van Wert. Part of our resistance is to ensure that neither she nor Trump can escape from real facts. 

The four pillars of good public education

But just as important as fighting the bad things DeVos and Trump are doing is our fight for the things we know work in public schools. 

In the decades of visiting schools in the U.S. and abroad, talking to educators and parents, looking at research, and teaching myself, its clear what strategies help create and maintain schools where teachers want to teach, students are engaged, and parents are happy to send their children. It comes down to 4 pillars — focusing on children’s well-being, powerful learning, teacher capacity, and collaboration. 

  • Promoting Children’s Well-Being Education starts with meeting children where they are —emotionally, socially, physically and academically. Every child needs to feel safe and valued—that’s foundational. So is confronting the reality of poverty. One way is community schools, neighborhood public schools that meet students’ needs by coordinating partners and resources. New York City’sCommunity Health Academy of the Heights is a great example. CHAH offers supports like mental health counseling, a parent resource center, a food pantry and a community health clinic. A variety of indicators, including large gains in academic achievement, attest to its effectiveness. Or like what I saw in Portland at the Rosa Parks Elementary School and the schools in Lake Oswego that wrap community services around the schools—with some offering a child care center.
  • Supporting Powerful Learning Our public schools are asked to develop students academically, for work and civic life, and to lead fulfilling lives. Testing and test prep won’t achieve those goals. The path to accomplishing them lies in powerful learning—learning that engages students; and encourages them to investigate, strategize and collaborate. Like the New York City students who conducted a mock trial of a participant in the Rwanda genocide; and the students in Corpus Christi, Texas, who investigated the potential for humans to live on other planets. And the rigorous project-based approach in Van Wert that I mentioned, that starts in elementary school and goes through high school .Career and technical education can also deeply engage students and develop skills and knowledge they can use in the world of work.
  • Building Teacher Capacity You can’t just be thrown the keys and told to go do it. No one would accept that from pilots or doctors or our armed forces…but teachers? Please…, Becoming an accomplished teacher takes time, support and an intentional focus, such as teacher residency programs that pair prospective teachers with accomplished educators, and opportunities for new and veteran teachers to share their expertise with colleagues. Teacher evaluation can also build capacity, and the AFT has fought for evaluation systems that support both teacher growth and student learning.
  • Fostering School and Community Collaboration And the glue that holds all this together is educators, parents and community partners working together. Collaboration is essential—schools with parents, educators with administrators, and schools with community partners. When schools struggle, the response too often is “disruption”—mass firings, school closures, and district or state takeovers. Those approaches are indeed disruptive, but they are not effective. Parents, teachers, kids, and communities know that our public schools aren’t a dead end. Ninety percent of children in America attend public schools. There are great things happening in public schools in every community in America. In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers’ #Public School Proud campaign highlights those great things. Poetry slams. Speech therapy. Socratic seminars. Science fairs. Students checkmating their chess coach. A once-struggling student reading on grade level. The #Public School Proud campaign is now taking hold in places like Ohio, New Mexico, and Volusia County, Florida. It’s one of the ways educators, parents and communities are countering the very real threats to public education.

Public Schools are places of endless opportunities. They need support, not scorn. They need investment not cuts. 

The four pillars I outlined take two things—investment and a law that enables it. 

The bipartisan education law passed by Congress in 2015 created the potential to put these pillars into practice. 

It moved us beyond the failed strategies and fights of the last decade and the focus on top down accountability, the fixation on testing, and reducing kids to test scores and teachers to algorithms. 

Every Student Succeeds Act

While the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) didn’t solve all problems…it created the potential to change things and focus on what works best for kids. Under ESSA, high-stakes testing and sanctions are no longer the be-all and end-all in education. States still will administer standardized tests, but they can now limit the consequences of these tests and the time students spend taking them. States have an explicit obligation to help struggling schools succeed, not simply to close them. And they are required to build an accountability system grounded in what student need to know and be able to do—for example, by allowing project-based assessments (like we saw in Van Wert), which can replace regular state standardized assessments in seven pilot states. ESSA encourages the use of a broader range of academic and non-academic indicators—like measures of student engagement or access to challenging courses—as ways to look at progress and success. ESSA gets the federal government out of the business of teacher evaluation. And it kept the funding formula for Title I, so the current funds can’t be redeployed to vouchers. 

Savage budget cuts

Investment matters. What they’ve built in Van Wert, and in communities across Oregon and around the country, will be harmed beyond recognition if the Trump/DeVos budget and the cuts go through. The proposed Trump/DeVos budget cuts education by $9 billion (a 14 percent cut)– the biggest dollar cut to the education budget ever and the largest percentage cut since Reagan administration. It zeros out funding for afters chool and summer programs, community schools, and resources to reduce class size and provide teacher professional development. It cuts financial aid for low-income students at the same time they are making it easier for private loan servicers to prey on students and families. 

These cuts drive a stake through the heart of public education and destroy the promise and potential it offers our children. By eliminating after-school and summer programs, Trump and DeVos are telling working parents: Either work and leave your young children unsupervised for several hours a day, or stay home with them and lose the job you need to pay the rent and grocery bills. For many children with tough situations at home, school may be the only safe sanctuary they can count on, or the only place they reliably receive a meal each day; this budget would rob them of that safety and security. These cuts would leave kids hungry and unsupervised, and force them into potentially dangerous situations.

Every $1 invested in after-school programs saves $9 by increasing kids’ future earning potential, improving their performance at school, and reducing crime and welfare costs, according to a study by the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College. Studies have shown that regular participation in after-school programs and community learning centers increases achievement in math and reading, school attendance, homework completion, class participation, improved classroom behavior and lower dropout rates. And 8 in 10 parents say after-school programs help them keep their jobs.

We are not waiting for what Congress thinks about these cuts. We are fighting Trump and DeVos on them already.. And part of that is to make them uncomfortable with the consequences of their actions. 

We have to continue to hold her accountable. We must continue to expose her as an anti-public education ideologue. We must continue to educate people on her record and the threats to public schools. And we must empower people to take action to preserve and protect public education. 

Reason for hope

The good news is that the American people on our side. That’s what we saw in the thunderous opposition to the nomination of Betsy DeVos. The public in public education has never been more visible or more vocal, and it’s not going back in the shadows. DeVos is unwittingly mobilizing supporters of public schools. Five million Americans overwhelmed the U.S. Senate switchboard with calls opposing her nomination. At the Women’s Marches in Washington and around the globe, there were lots of signs opposing her and supporting public schools. There have been hundreds of demonstrations across the country in recent months organized by AROS—the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, with help from the AFT, where parents, students, educators and community members have called for increased support for public schools.  On May 1, there will be more AROS demonstrations in support of public schools across the country.  

A poll by Harvard and Politico this week showed that while parents want good public school choices to meet the individual needs of their kids, including charters, magnets, career tech schools, early college and neighborhood schools, they do not want any choices put against each other or used to drain money out of other public schools—in other words the DeVos/Trump agenda is wildly out of step with what Americans want for their kids.

The road map is there if we are able to focus on what works rather than ideology. If we follow the Van Wert model in which love for public schools transcends politics and we focus on real investment in schools, kids, and teachers as opposed to the Trump/DeVos model to defund and destabilize, to privatize and profiteer. 

There’s no sugar coating it—as Americans we face several existential threats to the rights and values we cherish—threats we’ve never thought we would have to face in our own country. 

But there is a path forward focused on both resistance and persistence around the values and aspirations that bind all of us together. 

In the end, it’s a question of what kind of country we want.Should we settle for some children getting the education they need and deserve, but not all? Do we want a country where people’s income determines whether they will have access to the healthcare they need? Do we want a country in which individuals are powerless, and hard-working people are denied the ability to earn decent wages and benefits? Of course not. 

In this new era it is we the people who must be the check and balance on the threats to our democracy.  It is we the people who must move an agenda to reconnect with our neighbors and those who feel frustrated, angry, and disillusioned. It is we the people who must reclaim the promise of the American Dream. 

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