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When Randi met Betsy

New York Teacher

Michael Mulgrew Headshot

Michael Mulgrew

The April 20 meeting between AFT President Randi Weingarten and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos took place in an appropriate spot: Van Wert, a small school district of 2,000 students in northwest Ohio where voters overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump and where rural poverty is no stranger.

It is no mystery why Weingarten extended the invitation to DeVos to tour the district’s schools together: Half of the students in Van Wert come from low-income families, but 96 percent graduate from high school on time. On the tour, DeVos and Weingarten saw teachers and students engaged in real work, from pre-K through high school robotics classes. The district has no charter schools or vouchers. The people of Van Wert are acutely aware of how public school funding would suffer if there were. And the AFT local is strong.

As Weingarten said in her remarks after the tour with DeVos: “This is what public education is: Incredibly dedicated people who want to make a difference in the lives of students.”

The tour will not make DeVos a champion of public schools. But it was a good reminder of what we are seeking to protect. In New York, we are lucky to have a governor and one house of the state Legislature — the Assembly — holding the line against Trump policies with a commitment to our students. The recent state budget agreement includes a $1.1 billion increase for public schools and a two-year extension of the millionaire’s tax, creating much-needed revenue for our schools. The charter school cap has been kept in place.

Other states have not had our good fortune. Republican governors and state legislators, emboldened by the Trump-DeVos agenda, have pushed through tax-credit vouchers.

Arizona, which has one of the oldest and largest tax-credit voucher systems in the nation, went a step further in April: The governor signed into law a bill making it easier for all parents to enroll their children in private school at public expense through vouchers once only available to disabled children and students in low-performing schools. The legislator who sponsored the bill credited the new education priorities in Washington, D.C., with helping her make it palatable to her colleagues, telling reporters: “From the national level down, the winds have changed.”

Ohio lawmakers are considering a bill that would make state vouchers available to middle-class families, not just low-income families or students in low-performing schools. Texas families and teachers are putting up a fierce fight against vouchers, but they face powerful forces with deep pockets. The first people to testify in favor of vouchers at a Texas hearing were representatives of the Koch Institute, the Heritage Foundation, a pro-voucher organization in Florida and the group that DeVos headed before becoming education secretary.

Public school educators are in a good place in New York City right now, but we cannot be complacent. Trump has vowed to push through tax reforms that will likely enrich the wealthiest and burden most of the country with reductions in education and other public services. Tax reform also is the place where Trump is likely to slip in a major provision for tax-credit vouchers, siphoning vital funds from our neighborhood public schools.

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments in a Missouri case about the constitutionality of allowing religious organizations to receive public funds. Currently, so-called “Blaine amendments,” in place in 40 states including New York, expressly prohibit it. But with Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch now confirmed, restoring a conservative majority, the court looks poised to strike down that longstanding separation of church and state. Such a ruling would open the floodgates for public money to be directed to private and religious schools.

Randi Weingarten made another trenchant observation at the close of her Van Wert tour with Betsy DeVos. She said we’d all be better off if education were viewed as everyone’s responsibility — Democrats and Republicans alike. She’s right. Having a vibrant and stable public school system is important whether you live in a red state or a blue state. That’s why the #PublicSchoolProud campaign is taking root in Texas and other states across the nation.

The Trump administration will have a fight on its hands if it takes on every teacher, every parent, every PTA in the country. Public school communities are not red or blue. They want to protect their neighborhood schools. And we’ll be right there with them.