The school choice movement has seen more success in the past three months than over the past three decades. Why? Some point to the general aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Others point to a shift in choice proponents’ political strategy—emphasizing cultural concerns over testing data. Others point to the influence of the novel social media strategy executed by the American Federation for Children’s Corey DeAngelis. But DeAngelis himself frequently places the crown of the credit elsewhere: on the head of Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
The truth of that puckish assertion was in evidence earlier this week, when Weingarten gave a speech at the National Press Club titled, “In Defense of Public Education,” which dripped with a special species of hatred for half of America.
During the Trump administration, an ironic slogan became vogue in some quarters of the Left: “Love Trumps Hate.” It was ironic because its mouthers seemed entirely unaware of the hatred implicit in attributing the political preferences of their opponents to hatred. Most politically sane people understand that most everyone is motivated by a vision of—and desire to do—good. Most also understand that Americans of good faith can profoundly disagree about what is good, and how to promote it.
But not Randi Weingarten.
As cultural concerns over the character of public education have bubbled to the fore, Weingarten did not react at the National Press Club as though those concerns were rooted in conflicting visions of what is best for our nation’s children. Rather, Weingarten asserted her political opponents were “putting LGBTQ youth at risk” and “aiming to ban books about Black people and by Black authors.” Her political opponents “don’t give a damn about kids’ safety and well-being”—not even about whether kids kill themselves. She framed the debate as a “matter of life and death.” Naturally, Weingarten is on the side of life; her political foes are on the side of death.
How about policies attempting to rein in sexually inappropriate indoctrination? “The intent and effect,” she says, “is to create a climate of fear and intimidation.” Parents who are alarmed by pornographic books in school libraries aren’t reacting defensively to protect their children’s innocence; they are trying to frighten and intimidate. They are, actually, “banning books and bullying vulnerable children.” (I’ve personally spoken at length to many parents concerned about sexually explicit books in school libraries. I’ve detected no hint of a desire to bully vulnerable children. On the contrary, I’ve noticed an overriding concern with their own children’s vulnerability.)
Most Americans still trust their local public schools in particular, but more are beginning to distrust public education in general. This is not the result of a right-wing con job. Distrust is, rather, a reasonable reaction when an institution operates under the outsize influence of an organization whose leader believes that you and your concerns are motivated by hatred.
If Weingarten had evinced more compassion, wisdom, and political grace, she could have perhaps headed off the school choice movement’s recent advances. Imagine if instead of characterizing conservative parents as “bullies” who “don’t give a damn” about whether children kill themselves, she had instead dealt with concerns over critical race theory by saying something like: “Our schools are doing their best to promote racial harmony. I understand the objections of some parents who see some efforts as counterproductive, and I’ve seen some examples of practices that alarm me. Let’s have teachers and parents work closely together to find the best approach.” Or if she had reacted to concerns about gender identity and sexual orientation by saying this: “It’s important to make all students feel safe and welcome. But it’s obviously inappropriate for teachers to take a proactive interest in their students’ sexuality, or to cut parents out of the equation when it comes to gender identity. Our schools are strong enough to strike the right balance.” Or if she had reacted to concerns about sexually explicit library books by saying: “I’ve seen some explicit library books that are obviously not age-appropriate. But it’s important to not blame educators or overreact to what is really a limited problem.”
Weingarten was in the perfect position to police her far-left flank, stand up for traditional teacher professionalism, and rebuild trust in public education in the wake of the pandemic. She chose not to do so.
She chose, instead, to ascribe to sheer malice the parental reaction against what many earnestly saw as the intrusion of a novel and divisive social agenda. Republican politicians paid attention to her rhetoric as she defended public education by attacking half the country as bigots. And they decided, quite reasonably, that parents have a right to send their children to schools outside of the influence of someone who hates them.