Cunningham: On School Segregation, Teachers Union President Randi Weingarten Is Projecting
Latest update: July 24
One of the oldest tactics in politics is to deflect attention from one’s own flaws onto opponents. In a recent speech addressed to her colleagues, Randi Weingarten, leader of the teachers union, utilized this long-standing strategy by accusing the school choice movement of perpetuating one of the most persistent issues of traditional public schools: segregation.
Public schools in America have played a significant role in maintaining segregation, with the practice being legal until 1954 and commonly practiced in the South.
However, a more covert form of segregation exists throughout the country. Zoned school systems contribute to racial and economic segregation, to the extent that parents of color have faced imprisonment for attempting to enroll their children in schools outside their residential zones.
Remarkably, one of the most segregated school systems in America is found in New York City, where Randi Weingarten herself previously headed the teachers union. Recent events on the Upper West Side of Manhattan revealed that even progressive white parents resist efforts towards integration.
School systems across the nation, alongside colleges and universities that train teachers, have done an abysmal job when it comes to recruiting and retaining teachers of color. Despite over 50 percent of students identifying as people of color, the teaching profession comprises just 17 percent people of color. Shockingly, only around two out of every hundred teachers are Black males.
The roots of this institutional racism within the teaching field can be traced back to the 1950s, when the Supreme Court deemed segregation illegal. Countless Black teachers who had been working in all-Black schools struggled to secure employment in integrated schools.
Unfortunately, teachers unions have done very little to address this issue. In fact, Weingarten’s local New York City chapter was involved in a notorious 1968 struggle against integration in Ocean-Hill, Brownsville, which precipitated a 36-day teacher strike and transformed Albert Shanker into a national hero.
Perhaps the most absurd aspect of Weingarten’s speech is how she portrayed teachers unions as courageous underdogs, standing up against the massive influence of school privatization.
With over 4 million members and a substantial collection of dues at the federal, state, and local levels, teachers unions wield immense political power to advance their own agendas. They hire lobbyists in every state and spend billions to secure support from influential political figures.
They have a seat at the table, deciding how America’s annual $600 billion public education budget is allocated. Yet, their influence is primarily used to protect their members’ job security and benefits, with very little effort made towards addressing the funding disparities that plague low-income, Black, and brown students.
In contrast to the centralized union movement based in Washington, the school choice movement is decentralized, uncoordinated, and organic. It consists of individual decisions made by 10 million parents across America who have opted out of the traditional public school system for personal reasons such as religion, safety, racism, or concerns about quality education.
The movement comprises 3 million children in charter schools, 1.8 million children in Catholic schools, another 3 million in independent private schools, and 1.8 million children being homeschooled. Interestingly, many "choice" parents are themselves unionized public school teachers.
Additionally, the movement includes thousands of educators from public charter schools who left traditional public schools seeking to escape suffocating bureaucracy and create the type of learning environments they have always desired. The most successful charter schools are actively addressing achievement gaps.
Many of us within the "school reform" movement have diligently endeavored to collaborate with teachers unions on various strategies to improve public schools. In cities such as Denver, Newark, and elsewhere, we have facilitated partnerships between charter and traditional public school educators in order to share best practices.
We are not opposed to unions, nor are we "free market" extremists. We simply believe in the transformative power of education to enhance the lives of all children, regardless of their socioeconomic status, race, or background. It is disheartening that the traditional public school system has exhibited resistance to much-needed change.
Similar to numerous politicians today, Randi Weingarten seeks to energize her supporter base by manufacturing dissent, amplifying grievances, and attributing negative motives to philanthropists and other individuals who have invested their time and resources to improve all public schools, including charter schools.
On the other hand, most of her members are hardworking classroom teachers who are achieving remarkable results in schools throughout the country on a daily basis. They pay little attention to union politics. Ultimately, the voices of these teachers, along with those of parents and students, are the ones that truly matter.
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