Magazine October 24, 2016, Issue

The Unionista

(Roman Genn)
Hillary Clinton stopped believing in school choice when the unions wanted her to

Once upon a time, Hillary Clinton championed children and wanted to right many of the wrongs found in public education. In 1993, she talked about holding teachers accountable for their work. While never an advocate of education vouchers, she did endorse one kind of school choice: At the National Education Association (NEA) convention in 1999, she said, “I . . . hope that you will continue to stand behind the charter-school/public-school movement, because I believe that parents do deserve greater choice within the public-school system to meet the unique needs of their children.” In 2001, along with Ted Kennedy, she backed George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act.

But now, with many of the reforms that Clinton once embraced having taken hold, the teachers’ unions realize that their empire is threatened and are battling to maintain their power. So Hillary has become an unabashed unionista.

That the teachers’ unions have enormous political power, and that Democratic presidential candidates curry favor with them, is hardly news. But what is different about this year’s presidential campaign is Clinton’s total obeisance to the unions. Even Barack Obama managed to disagree with them on occasion. When speaking at the NEA convention in 2008, he endorsed charter schools (which are rarely unionized) and merit pay for teachers. He took some lumps for his stance but stood his ground.

Not Hillary.

In July 2015, the American Federation of Teachers’ left flank was upset. Some of its members felt they hadn’t had a real say in the union’s endorsement of Mrs. Clinton. Preferring Bernie Sanders, they essentially accused union president Randi Weingarten of exercising executive privilege to bless Clinton, her longtime friend. (The NEA, which did not have an internal dispute about its endorsement, has also backed Clinton.)

Perhaps realizing there was an anti-Clinton faction within teachers’ unions, Hillary has made sure to be in accord with every millimeter of the union line. In November of last year, at a town-hall meeting in South Carolina, Clinton retreated from her support for charter schools. The “original idea” behind them, she said, had been “to learn what worked and then apply [it] in public schools.” But “most charter schools — I don’t want to say every one — but most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them. And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation, because they do, thankfully, take everybody, and then they don’t get the resources or the help and support that they need to be able to take care of every child’s education.”

These words were essentially fact-free. Legally, charters are not allowed to discriminate. At the time of her comments, 24 percent of charter schools had a majority-black student body, and 23 percent had a majority-Hispanic student body. By comparison, only 9 percent of traditional public schools were majority-black, and 15 percent were majority-Hispanic. Nationally, there are more than a million kids on waiting lists trying to enroll in the schools that Clinton now scorns. In fact, many charter schools are so popular that their students are selected by lottery. Charter schools also take roughly the same proportion (10.4 percent) of special-education students as do traditional public schools (12.5 percent). That figure understates the charter-school proportion, since charter schools sometimes don’t give students the “special” label that traditional public schools would.

In the same town-hall meeting, Clinton continued by saying, “I am also fully aware that there are a lot of substandard public schools. But part of the reason for that is that policymakers and local politicians will not fund schools in poor areas that take care of poor children to the level that they need to be.” This claim, too, is false, and has been debunked time and again. In fact, total public-school spending nationally has increased threefold over a 40-year period with no measurable improvement in student achievement.

Fast-forward to the NEA convention this past July. While she took crowd-pleasing positions — such as supporting higher teacher pay and universal pre-kindergarten education — Mrs. Clinton made the faux pas of remarking, “When schools get it right, whether they are traditional public schools or public charter schools, let’s figure out what’s working and share it with schools across America.” This seemingly innocuous comment prompted boos. Clinton recovered by asserting that there are people pushing “for-profit charter schools on our kids,” and promising, “We will never stand for that. That is not acceptable.” (In fact, nationally, just 13 percent of charters are for-profit, and all must follow the same laws and financial-oversight regulations that nonprofit schools do.)

Two weeks later, at the American Federation of Teachers convention, Clinton said that she opposed “vouchers and for-profit schooling.” She added, “When I’m president, you will have a partner in the White House, and you will always have a seat at the table.”

But is it actually a seat for educators? No. What she really meant is that every place at the table is reserved for union bosses and their acolytes. On September 9, Mother Jones magazine revealed Clinton’s education advisers. They include Lily Eskelsen García and Randi Weingarten, leaders of the two national teachers’ unions mentioned above. Joining them are Carmel Martin and Catherine Brown, vice presidents of the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank that is financially supported by the teachers’ unions. One other member of Clinton’s inner circle is reformer Chris Edley, president of the Opportunity Institute, a California-based think tank, whose board is a collection of Clinton loyalists. And the last seat goes to Richard Riley, who served as Bill Clinton’s education secretary and was the recipient of the NEA’s Friend of Education award.

Clinton’s alliance with the teachers’ unions has not gone over well with education reformers, including some liberals. Democrats for Education Reform president Shavar Jeffries lamented, “There’s a lot of anxiety about the transition from this president to the next administration.”

Kevin Chavous, a founding board member of the American Federation for Children and a lifelong Democrat, now finds himself in an odd position. After learning of Donald Trump’s plan to greatly expand school choice, he said:

While I do not support Donald Trump, his speech on school choice demonstrates that he is giving serious thought to education issues, and I strongly challenge Hillary Clinton to do the same. . . . I urge Hillary Clinton to show more openness and creativity when it comes to embracing school reform, choice, and charter schools. So far Mrs. Clinton has largely been a representative of the interests of teachers’ unions and the status quo, which is in opposition to parents and students and will serve to be on the wrong side of history.

Clinton is not ignorant, and she’s not stupid. She’s what every politician in the country is who sends his or her children to private schools but sentences the rest of America’s kids to failed public schools — a hypocrite.

– Mr. Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network. The views presented here are his own.

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