Op-ed: The truth about school choice

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Friday, July 28, 2017 11:28am
  • Opinion

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is paid not to tell the truth about school choice, and she deserves a raise.

In a speech last week, she purported to uncover the racist roots of the school-choice movement in “massive resistance” to school desegregation in the 1960s. She noted that segregationist politicians in Prince Edward County, Virginia, notoriously shut down the public schools rather than integrate, and set up a private school system that white kids could use tuition grants and tax credits to attend.

“Make no mistake,” Weingarten said, by way of prefacing not just a mistake, but a historically perverse smear, “this use of privatization coupled with disinvestment are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.” Therefore pro school choice Education Secretary Betsy DeVos bears an ideological relation to George Wallace. Q.E.D.

Weingarten must know that no one in the school-choice movement looks for inspiration to Prince Edward County, even if she doesn’t let that stop her.

The intellectual seed of school choice was first planted in 1955 by Milton Friedman, the late Nobel Prize-winning libertarian economist never mistaken for a bigot. Friedman believed widely available vouchers would create a new dynamism in a state-dominated sector characterized by stasis.

The real-world political impetus for choice has been developing alternatives to rotten public schools for poor minority kids without other options.

The first notable law came in the late 1980s in Minnesota, championed by its Democratic governor, Rudy Perpich, and passed by its impeccably progressive legislature. It permitted parents to send their kids to school districts where they didn’t live with public money. The liberal American Prospect reported at the time that supporters of the reform included “1960s-era ‘open school’ progressives.”

Then came an experiment in Milwaukee to provide poor parents assistance to send their kids to private schools. Polly Williams, an African-American state assemblywoman from Milwaukee, became a high-profile advocate of choice. A Black Panther and the state chairman of Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign, Williams was open about her “pro-black” views and even said in private that she didn’t much like white people. Harry Byrd, the Virginia champion of massive resistance, she was emphatically not.

From these beginnings, choice has burgeoned into the educational mainstream. Half of states have private school choice programs, and more than 40 charter school laws. They don’t aim to take white kids out of integrated schools, but to take minority kids out of underperforming de facto segregated schools.

Weingarten used to head the teachers union in New York, where her nemesis was Eva Moskowitz, the founder of the Success Academy Charter Schools. Moskowitz is a Democrat who happens to believe poor kids deserve better than what they get in the traditional public school system. According to the New York Post, her 41 schools enroll about 14,000 kids, almost all of them minorities. The demand is vast, with annual waiting lists exceeding 10,000 families.

The analogue for today’s choice programs aren’t the segregationist academies of Prince Edward County, but the efforts by black leaders to bypass a system long designed to deny their children a proper education. “An analysis of American history,” a recent piece in The Atlantic related, “indicates that the use of private means was a critical aspect to ensure quality education for African Americans legally excluded from access to public institutions.”

Today, black kids aren’t legally excluded from the best schools but are legally bound to failing ones. In her speech, Weingarten bizarrely compared defenders of the status quo — amply funded by union dues, and embedded in entrenched bureaucracies — to David, and the reformers fighting for every inch to Goliath.

These are the words of a woman who knows the other side has the moral high ground, and the only way she can try to regain it is through obfuscation and tortured rationalizations. Hers, in short, is the voice of someone who is losing — and deserves to.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

More in Opinion

The official ballot for the Aug. 16, 2022, Special General Election features ranked choice voting. (State of Alaska Division of Elections)
Voices of the Peninsula: Check out the ballot before you vote

This kind of ballot is not something you have seen before.

Former Gov. Bill Walker, right, and his running mate former commissioner of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development Heidi Drygas, speak to Juneauites gathered for a fundraiser at a private home in Juneau on Tuesday, June 7, 2022. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Why I’m voting for Walker

Walker is the only candidate with the potential to govern effectively for all Alaskans.

Nick Begich III campaign materials sit on tables ahead of a May 16 GOP debate held in Juneau. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Nick Begich is who Alaska and America need now

It is in Alaska’s best interest to elect a member of the Republican party

State Sen. Josh Revak (Photo provided)
The time has come to end Big Tech’s rule

The hope is that the bipartisan American Innovation and Choice Online Act (S. 2992) will come to the Senate floor for a vote

Michael Heimbuch attends a memorial service for the late Drew Scalzi on Aug. 5, 2005, at the Seafarers Memorial on the Homer Spit in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)
Point of View: King salmon: The clash of culture and science

People do some pretty awful things to king salmon stocks

Lieutenant governor candidate Edie Grunwald speaks at a Charlie Pierce campaign event at Paradisos restaurant in Kenai on Saturday, March 5, 2022. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Election Integrity: An Alaskan question with an Alaskan answer

A needless round of feel-good meetings and what-if conversations will be a thing of the past

This photo shows the University of Alaska Southeast campus in Juneau. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: I’m a longtime educator, and I’m supporting Walker/Drygas

The issues our state faces are significant with regard to education.

Larry Persily (Peninsula Clarion file)
Opinion: Congress could keep health insurance costs from rising, but it has to act fast

The cost of health insurance will rise substantially next year for about 13 million Americans

The offical ballot for the Aug. 16, 2022, Special General Election features ranked choice voting. (State of Alaska Divison of Elections)
Opinion: Alaskans deserve an election system that represents our differences

The new system’s goal is to make this election cycle transparent, secure and easy for all Alaskans to vote

UAA Chancellor Sean Parnell (Courtesy)
Opinion: UAA’s career certificates are helping to fill Alaska’s workforce pipeline

At UAA, we are announcing a new suite of certificate programs responding to some of the state’s most critical needs

Opinion: Remaining vigilant after 30 years

Exxon Valdez spurred both federal and state legislatures, the industry, and the public to come together