This should be interesting.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten says she views her Ohio school visit alongside Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Thursday as a lesson for DeVos on the virtues of traditional public education. Whether DeVos will appreciate being cast as a student of the teachers-union chief remains to be seen.
Weingarten, head of one of the largest U.S. labor organizations and a strong critic of the education secretary, recently invited DeVos to tour schools with her.
DeVos agreed to visit a traditional public school with Weingarten, who chose to take the education secretary to the small, rural Van Wert school district in Ohio, where about half of the students come from high-poverty neighborhoods. Weingarten wrote in an op-ed that just ran in a local newspaper in Van Wert that she sees the district as a model for others trying to improve:
The hallmarks of successful public schools (and systems) include four essential strategies: promoting children’s well-being, engaging in powerful learning, building teacher and principal capacity, and fostering cultures of collaboration. Van Wert puts these four pillars into practice.
The op-ed included other things too, such as direct criticism of DeVos and her approach to her job.
DeVos is a big supporter of charter and private schools, and in a 2015 speech called traditional public school districts a “dead end.” She has characterized the U.S. public education system — which some people consider the most important civic institution in the country — as a monopoly. Weingarten worked against the Senate confirmation of DeVos as education secretary, which was secured only after Mike Pence became the first vice president in U.S. history to break a tie for a Cabinet nominee.
Weingarten criticized DeVos in the op-ed (which I have permission to publish):
Parents and teachers sounded the alarm when DeVos was nominated, because of her efforts over the past two decades to undermine public schools. As a lobbyist in Michigan, she used her wealth to push legislators to defund public education in favor of for-profit charter schools that had no accountability to parents or the public. She has called public education a “dead end.” The proposed budget — cutting programs that work and advancing privatization strategies that don’t — suggests she continues to do what she did in Michigan which led the public schools to drop precipitously in math and English achievement
The budget proposed by DeVos and President Trump takes a meat cleaver to public education. The cuts total $9 billion, the largest-ever cut to education, while their budget invests $1.3 billion in privatization. And more funding for privatization will result in fewer resources for what actually works in schools.
When the federal budget gets cut and the state can’t make up the difference, the burden lands on the local district. But here in Van Wert, teachers and school officials have already stretched the budget as far as possible. Anything cut now would destroy the programs and strategies that make Van Wert’s schools great.
DeVos, Weingarten wrote, should understand that the “result of this budget could ultimately mean less money for social workers, robotics and engineering classes, pre-K, band trips, art and music, reduced class sizes and increased teacher capacity.”
And then Weingarten wrote:
Why would the education secretary want to rip apart what is working here in Van Wert and elsewhere?
Van Wert proves support for public education transcends politics. Federal, state and local education policy should be guided by what works best for kids and schools — not by ideology.
When asked what he would want to say to DeVos, a Van Wert teacher said, “The people best equipped to teach kids are in public schools right now, and we just need the resources to do our jobs.”
That’s the real lesson we hope DeVos takes back to Washington.
Weingarten’s piece appeared to reference a statement that DeVos made in March when she visited a traditional public school in Washington D.C. After visiting Jefferson Academy, DeVos criticized some of the teachers she saw there during an interview with columnist Cal Thomas of the conservative online publication Townhall, saying they seemed dedicated and sincere but were in “receive mode” and “waiting to be told what they have to do.” The teachers at Jefferson were not amused, and expressed their annoyance on social media.
Weingarten also took the opportunity in her op-ed to attack Ohio’s troubled charter school sector even though DeVos is a big charter supporter. Weingarten wrote:
Van Wert’s move to project-based learning is a great example of powerful learning that engages students, inspires them to think critically and tackle complex concepts, and teaches them to work in teams and present their work—skills they need to succeed in the 21st-century economy. I’m looking forward to seeing students’ presentations of their robotics and engineering projects this week.
When the district transitioned to this model, teachers weren’t simply handed a training guide and told “just do it”; there was an intensive training process. And across the district, teachers have time to collaborate as part of their schedules. Providing teachers with the time, tools and trust to do their jobs and hone their craft is essential to recruiting and retaining the best teaching staff for our kids.
All of this is possible through a culture of collaboration that is baked into every level of teaching and learning. Big decisions aren’t made unilaterally from the top; teachers work side by side with administrators and parents to improve learning and school conditions. Teachers feel empowered to innovate, propose solutions and lead. And this culture extends beyond the classroom, with partnerships with local businesses that provide kids with internships and other opportunities and enable teachers to adapt their lessons to incorporate the skills and knowledge businesses say their employees need.
The result? Van Wert public schools have a 96 percent graduation and attendance rate, and 75 percent of graduates go on to a two- or four-year college. The public schools here have a dedicated teaching force. And people are moving to Van Wert because of the schools. It’s truly something to be proud of.
In contrast, Ohio’s charter schools have been plagued by fraud, mid-year school closings, lying about student attendance to receive additional funding, mismanagement, and an overall lack of accountability that has led even charter proponents to call Ohio the “Wild, Wild West” of charter schools. One study by state auditors found more than $27 million in improperly spent funds at Ohio charters. The Akron Beacon Journal found that “charter schools misspend public money nearly four times more often than any other type of taxpayer-funded agency.”
When DeVos agreed to visit a traditional public school with Weingarten, the union leader agreed to visit a charter school with DeVos. That visit has yet to be scheduled.