At the American Federation of Teachers’ biannual TEACH conference in July, union president Randi Weingarten gave a provocative speech about school choice, privatization, and Donald Trump’s secretary of education. “Betsy DeVos is a public school denier, denying the good in our public schools and their foundational place in our democracy,” Weingarten declared. “Her record back in Michigan, and now in Washington, makes it clear that she is the most anti–public education secretary of education ever.”
But it was Weingarten’s remarks about choice and segregation that ultimately drew the most fire: She highlighted politicians who had used school choice as a way to resist integration following Brown v. Board of Education; she argued that the use of private school vouchers increases racial and economic segregation; and she emphasized that privatization, “coupled with disinvestment, are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.”
Her speech came on the heels of a new Center for American Progress report, entitled “The Racist Origins of Private School Vouchers,” which presented similar historical arguments. CAP and the AFT—liberal institutions that sparred over education reform during the Obama years—held a joint event on the report the week before, emphasizing that voucher programs generally benefit the most advantaged students, lead to increasingly economically segregated schools, and divert needed resources from public education. With Trump in the White House, teachers unions and the influential liberal think tank have apparently found some common ground.
The backlash from conservatives and education reformers was swift and fierce. The Wall Street Journal editorial board argued that Weingarten’s speech demonstrated that she “recognizes that the public-school monopoly her union backs is now under siege, morally and politically, for its failure to educate children, especially minority children.” Rick Hess, the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, called CAP’s report “misguided, misleading and historically inaccurate.” And Peter Cunningham, who runs an education reform advocacy group, wrote in response that Weingarten was just projecting the flaws of traditional public schools and unions onto her opponents.
While many of these critics have long championed dismantling much of the public sector, there is something conspicuous about American liberalism’s newfound focus on school segregation.
Though CAP and teachers unions regularly speak about educational “equity,” it’s no secret that neither have been very vocal about school segregation in the past few decades. CAP, which strongly touted charter schools during the Obama years, had nary a word to say then about charters’ impact on racial and economic isolation. Even now, as CAP takes a new outspoken stand on private school choice and segregation, it has stayed silent on the segregative risks of chartering.
The relationship between teachers unions and desegregation efforts has been complicated, too.
In some respects, teachers unions served as leaders for the pro-integration liberal establishment during the years following Brown v. Board. Historian Jonna Pereillo traces these dynamics in her book Uncivil Rights: Teachers unions joined forces with civil rights activists to push for integrated schools, reduced class sizes, increased health and social services, and improved school facilities. Charles Cogen, who served as the president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers between 1960 and 1964, and then as AFT president from 1964 to 1968, took strong stances in support of rezoning and school integration. Pereillo notes that Cogen pushed his union “to fight the tendency of many Northern liberals to see both sides of the integration debate,” emphasizing that liberal teachers should “stand by a forthright and consistent decision” to push for integrated schools. The UFT’s highest ranking black officer, Richard Parrish, also filed an amicus curiae in the Brown case, and the AFT later expelled some Southern locals that refused to cooperate with the Supreme Court’s decision.
But while unions backed efforts to integrate and equalize public schools, they generally opposed initiatives that would have required transferring educators into schools they didn’t want to work in. Focused on the unequal work environments between black and white schools, unions argued that to transfer teachers against their will would represent yet another example of teachers’ lack of agency over their professional lives.
Put differently, the AFT and its affiliates played an important role pushing for integration, but when teachers were asked to make the same sacrifices as bused students, unions pushed back, firmly asserting that working conditions in black schools would have to be improved first.
By the late 1960s, many black parents grew increasingly frustrated with the teachers unions’ stance—one they felt was cowardly and racist, and an excuse to avoid serving their children. Many also grew increasingly disillusioned that public schools would ever actually integrate, and, as part of an ideological and strategic shift away from integration to black power, they began pushing for greater decision-making power over their local segregated schools, including who should be allowed to teach, and what subjects educators should be allowed to teach. Teachers, in turn, balked at having their job requirements dictated to them by non-educators, internalizing it as yet another sign that they lacked agency over their professional lives.
And as the teachers-union movement grew—UFT membership, for instance, soared 66 percent between 1965 and 1968—thousands of the newer members proved to be more conservative in political orientation. “Unionists who had once enacted progressive social and political works through their unions now found themselves at odds with a growing number of new members who wanted little to do with civil rights projects,” Pereillo writes about the period.
In the 1970s and 1980s, court decisions that mandated busing for integrational purposes became an explosive issue for many white parents of school-age children. In such presumably liberal bastions as Boston and Los Angeles, busing opponents won elections to school boards and other public offices, at times shifting public discourse and policy well to the right, and not only on education issues. The fierce political opposition to so-called “forced busing” led much of the liberal community, including teachers unions, to turn its attention, resources, and political capital elsewhere. Activists within the African-American community also began to focus less on integration and more on issues such as funding disparities and school discipline. While school desegregation had always been controversial, the busing backlash transformed it into a third-rail issue.
But beginning in 2014, issues of racial justice began to re-enter liberal rhetoric in a more overt way. Following a wave of high-profile police shootings and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the public started to grapple more openly with the legacies and realities of American racism. Teachers unions were not immune to this reckoning.
In the summer of 2015, at the National Education Association’s annual meeting, members voted on a historic new resolution to fight institutional racism, which they defined as “the societal patterns and practices that have the net effect of imposing oppressive conditions and denying rights, opportunity and equality based on race.” That same summer, the AFT formed its own Task Force on Racial Equity to outline how the union could move schools away from zero-tolerance policies, reform discipline practices, and create more supportive environments for young black men.
Yet despite powerful new cases against segregation from a diverse set of thinkers—including writers like Nikole Hannah-Jones and researchers like Raj Chetty—neither the AFT nor the NEA had yet to tackle segregation head on, even with their increased focus on issues of race and discrimination. And elsewhere in the liberal community, fears of provoking more white backlash in a nation where white nationalism was on the rise put a damper still on discussions of desegregation.
This tension was illustrated last summer, at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, when I had the opportunity to interview NEA President Lily Garcia about her views on education policy.
Rachel Cohen: There’s been a renewed national discussion around school integration since the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education two years ago. School segregation was notably absent from the Democratic Party’s K–12 platform. Why isn’t school segregation getting more attention, and do you think the NEA could play a bigger role in pushing desegregation forward?
Lily Garcia: If you take a look at the most highly segregated schools, if you’re looking at all Latino kids, or all African American kids, then you’re mostly looking at charter schools. Poor communities usually end up being described as “poor, minority” communities. Why do those words go together? Why do those two adjectives have to describe the same communities? You can’t just treat the school. You have to treat the entire community. You have to treat poverty.
Integrating schools will not cure the poverty that affects those students. What they’ve done to integrate schools in some places where I’ve been is that they’ve closed down the school in the black neighborhood, and put those kids on a bus, and shipped them for an hour to the white school. They usually broke up the community so that you wouldn’t have a majority-minority school. We’ve seen [integration] done so poorly. What we really want to focus on is equity.
Cohen: Do you draw a distinction between the movement to integrate schools and equity?
Garcia: When you talk about school integration, there’s so much more than let’s just have black, brown, and white children sit together in the same classroom. You can do that simply by assigning kids to different schools. But why are there deep pockets of poverty where black and brown children live? You have to be talking about the roots of what’s going on.
Garcia’s responses were emblematic of the union’s fraught position. They expressed an obvious concern with questions of racial justice, broadly defined, but a resistance to engaging the specific, narrower question of racial segregation. Indeed, Garcia’s criticism of busing, and especially her dismissal of integration as “hav[ing] black, brown, and white children sit together in the same classroom,” might strike civil rights advocates as akin to the talking points deployed by conservative defenders of segregation. This language is not unusual in certain education reform circles, but less common coming from a more progressive organization. And while AFT President Randi Weingarten had spoken more supportively about integration efforts than her NEA counterpart, she too had avoided directly answering questions about her union’s role in addressing segregation, and acknowledged that busing opposition has made integration advocacy difficult. As recently as last year, almost no one in the liberal establishment seemed inclined to tackle school segregation head on.
There is no question that the election of Donald Trump and his appointment of Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education has created a new political landscape for liberal organizations, including on the issue of school integration. The attacks on the Trump administration’s school choice agenda as segregationist have both reflected and led to a wave of liberal concern over segregation.
Over the past six months, the focus of liberals’ education policies has changed. DeVos was rightly skewered in February when she praised leaders of historically black colleges and universities for being the “real pioneers of school choice,” failing to recognize that HBCUs were created as a response to unabashed racial discrimination. Critics seized upon this blunder as evidence that the school choice movement does not care about or understand segregation.
Liberals and teachers unions have also jumped at the opportunity to assail school privatization as racist, a perspective many had long believed but far fewer had verbalized. Now, when attacking DeVos’s enthusiasm for tax credit scholarships and private school vouchers, progressives point to Trump’s support for such racist policies as immigrant deportations and police brutality; his administration’s enthusiasm for vouchers and charters, they say, must be understood as yet another extension of the president’s discriminatory agenda.
“Racism is unfortunately and undeniably part of the context through which policy proposals emerging from this administration must be considered,” wrote Catherine Brown, CAP’s vice president of education policy.
The Century Foundation, another influential liberal think tank, published research in March that emphasized the risks that private school vouchers pose for integration efforts. (CAP and the AFT relied on this research when crafting their recent talking points on school choice.) Century Foundation senior fellow Richard Kahlenberg wrote in The Atlantic that policies to promote school integration took “a significant hit” from the Trump administration when it recently killed a $12 million grant program to support local districts boosting socioeconomic diversity.
While these critiques are overdue and welcome, the timing sometimes seems politically convenient. For instance, the grant program Kahlenberg lamented was only months old at its time of death, established in the final days of Obama’s eight-year presidency. Prior to that, his administration by and large refused to promote desegregation in the bulk of its major education initiatives. In some instances, Obama’s education team even incentivized policies that exacerbated racial and economic isolation, in part by treating competitive grant applicants who served segregated populations more favorably than those targeting diverse ones.
Many liberal institutions have modified their rhetoric on issues of segregation since Donald Trump came to power, but some still only invoke it when referring to vouchers. CAP and the Century Foundation, for example, have directed their focus on the segregative effects of vouchers, but much less so on charters.
Political tribalism plays a role here. There was great pressure, both explicitly and implicitly, for progressive organizations to defer to the charter-friendly agenda of the Obama administration. And it’s simply easier for labor to politically oppose Trump and DeVos than to fight Obama and Arne Duncan (Obama’s education secretary), even when the latter could be relatively cold to teachers unions (and they to him).
But now, with Trump in office, the NEA has adopted its first new policy position on charter schools since 2001—and it’s far more harsh than its old one. Among other things, the new policy blasts charters for helping to create “separate and unequal education systems” that harm communities of color, language that clearly harkens back to the Brown decision. The AFT has long been more generally critical of charters than the NEA, in part because charters are more heavily concentrated in cities where AFT locals dominate. But now with Trump, the AFT has also begun incorporating sharper critiques of segregation into its criticism of school choice. (The latest comes this week in a Dissent article by Leo Casey, the executive director of the AFT’s Albert Shanker Institute.)
A longtime NEA staffer has noticed “a real uptick in interest” in discussions of segregation at union headquarters over the last year. For a very long time, the staffer said, unions have been influenced by the same political climate that affected other liberal institutions, viewing many earlier desegregation efforts as either abject failures or politically toxic. In recent years, though, as the union-friendly Economic Policy Institute has published more and more on the harm caused by racial and economic segregation, the NEA staffer says they can tell it’s having an impact internally within their union. “Having an organization like EPI, with its stature in the labor movement, focusing on this issue really does change the dynamics,” the staffer said. While for decades progressives have looked at desegregation as a political dead end, the calculus—at least in some ways—appears to be changing.
If unions and think tanks are recent arrivals to the reinvigorated movement to promote school integration, they’re still ahead of much of the country, and civil rights advocates will surely welcome their help. But they may also have an opportunity to learn from organizations that have been fighting these battles far longer. Notable among these is the NAACP, which has long focused on the intersections of school choice and racial segregation. Partly due to concerns about segregation, the organization approved resolutions in 2010 and 2014 raising issues about charter schools. This was followed by a resolution in 2016 calling for a moratorium on new charters until more research could be done, and last month the civil rights group published a new report outlining policy improvements they plan to push for in the charter sector going forward. The NAACP’s campaign against segregation more broadly has been central to its mission since its founding over a century ago.
It’s important to recognize the complicated factors that bring groups to the 21st century’s burgeoning civil rights movement, because right-wing critics will certainly not hesitate to cry hypocrisy or opportunism. But there’s opportunity here too: opportunity for labor and policy organizations to develop a stronger commitment to school integration, learning from the experience of civil rights veterans; and opportunity for those veterans, who need allies now more than ever, to hold newly vocal advocates accountable for long-professed commitments to integration and justice. Political coalitions are always imperfect at their start, but that’s never meant a powerful movement couldn't be forged from them in the end.