In 2023, 20 states expanded school choice options for America’s children. Perhaps these substantial legislative gains are what prompted Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, to have a meltdown last month and argue that school choice “undermines democracy.” Weingarten gaslights the public because her quest to make failing public schools the only educational option for America’s children is truly what threatens self-government.
The founders of our nation agreed that an educated citizenry is essential to self-rule. Thomas Jefferson, for example, argued that the consent of the governed is only possible with an educated population. To that end, the founders advocated for a public education system in which the government funds the education of its young citizens.
According to our nation’s founders, the purpose of government-funded education is to provide our children with a quality education, not to preserve power for teachers unions. When traditional K-12 public education fails to properly educate our children, which is the case now, public dollars must follow the students, not the failing institutions. Given that a poorly educated citizenry arguably is not properly equipped to offer its consent, evidenced in part by the required citizenship test for newcomers, public education’s politicization and lower test scores and standards are harmful to our “democracy.”
Consequences of Weingarten’s Priorities
Weingarten used her platform to advocate for prolonged school closures during the pandemic. In April 2020, her union’s demands in order to “safely reopen America’s schools” included the forgiveness of teachers’ educational loan debt and the suspension of teacher performance evaluations — demands that had absolutely nothing to do with public health. Weingarten, who at that time enjoyed an annual income of $564,236, essentially held our schools hostage for more than a year to increase the power of teachers and her union.
School closures didn’t need to last one-and-a-half years as they did in many districts across the United States. In Sweden and Denmark, for example, students missed very little in-person school days and are not suffering from the learning loss that is drowning American children.
Many private schools in America did not close during the pandemic. Instead, they prioritized their students. That is another reason we need to expand access and options for our children. Weingarten used the word “privatizing” in her comments last month as a scare tactic to imply that with more educational choice, public funding is eliminated, and the poor will suffer. School choice advocates, however, are not pushing for privatizing education. Rather, we argue that children are better served with public funds when the money follows the students. In fact, prolonged school closures and declining standards in public education most significantly affect America’s low-income children. Not only are public schools dumbing down our children, but they have also exacerbated economic inequalities with prolonged closures.
During the pandemic, there was a mass exodus of an estimated 1.2 million children from K-12 public schools. Parents knew our public schools were failing, and those with resources voted with their feet. Children from families with fewer resources were trapped in Weingarten’s prison, where they were denied in-person education for reasons much more to do with power than public health. Weingarten points one finger about who is undermining democracy, but three are pointing back to her.
Weingarten’s activism and leadership had catastrophic consequences. On an international math exam, called the Program for International Student Assessment, given to 620,000 15-year-old students from 81 countries, American students’ scores decreased by 13 points during the pandemic. Their scores dropped from 478 (of 1,000) in 2018 to 465 in 2022, placing our children 26th in the world for math achievement.
In addition to substantial learning loss demonstrated on multiple standardized tests, prolonged school closures have significantly contributed to the absenteeism plaguing our nation’s public schools. An unprecedented number of students are chronically absent in America’s schools, meaning they miss 10 percent or more of their school days. America’s children have internalized Weingarten’s pandemic message that their school attendance is inconsequential. After all, if that weren’t the case, why were schools’ doors closed for so long?
Union Head and Other Liberals Flee the Sinking Ship
In light of these post-pandemic developments, even the public school purists are fleeing the sinking ship with their children. The head of the Chicago Teachers Union, Stacy Davis Gates, enjoying an annual income of $262,429, enrolled her child in a private high school after fervently opposing school choice. Meanwhile, local school board member Melanie Meren of Fairfax County, Virginia, was influenced by teachers unions to repeatedly vote for prolonged school closures but sent her own children to private educational pods to supplement the district’s virtual learning. According to people like Davis Gates and Meren, public schools are good enough for our children but not for theirs.
Weingarten, leader of the anti-choice zealots, brags that 90 percent of our children still attend public schools, where she tries to hold them captive. If given another publicly funded option, many of our children would not be there. What monopolist doesn’t love to try to maintain her power and fiefdom? To the rest of us, when that failing fiefdom’s battle cry is for closed schools, reduced standards, and the suspension of teacher evaluations, the need for competition is crystal clear.
Supporting School Choice and Saving ‘Democracy’
Indeed, competition would decrease Weingarten’s power and likely improve public school performance for the children who remain there. Public school teachers and administrators would actually need to teach our children how to think instead of what to think if parents had other viable and affordable options for their children’s education.
American families have diverse needs, making school choice exceedingly beneficial. In recognition of the necessity of policies that support families’ educational choices, we celebrate National School Choice Week from January 21-27, 2024. Few issues are more important than the proper education of America’s children. In fact, school choice deserves to be celebrated for the entire month of January rather than just the week.
Founders Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams, all supporters of public education, likely would be mortified by its current inadequacy. To save self-government for future generations and revive the education system for America’s children, we desperately need school choice and competition.