When Betsy DeVos, the secretary of Education, visited Colorado Springs in late June for a pro-school-choice luncheon, she was greeted by children and adults “yelling obscenities and making nasty gestures,” The Gazette in Colorado Springs reported.
The protest was organized by the Pikes Peak Education Association and the Colorado Education Association, the local and state teachers unions. Members were led in a chant of “Down, down with corporations; up, up with education,” the Colorado Springs Independent reported. “An unidentified elementary-school age girl held a sign that read, “Report Card for Betsy DeVos: FU” in large, red letters,” said the Gazette.
“Our biggest issue is with her ... moving to de-fund public education and promote charters and voucher systems,” Phyllis Robinette, president of Pikes Peak Education Association and a second grade teacher, told the Independent – although charter schools are public schools in Colorado, and the state does not issue vouchers, the Independent pointed out.
Charters make up only 6.3% of public schools and educate just 4.6% of public school students. Of all charter schools, 85 percent are public or non-profit.
So why all the nastiness?
DeVos and the protest portend a problem for Democrats, says John Steele Gordon, the business journalist. Writing in Commentary under the headline “How to Lose an Election,” he considered Kamala Harris’ attack on former Vice President Joe Biden at the first debates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, because Biden had opposed busing.
“Busing students to achieve integration began in 1972 and was a total failure,” Gordon writes. The percentage of black students attending mostly black schools barely budged by 1980 and the percentages of white and black parents who favored it were in the low single digits.
Harris, campaigning in Iowa, refined her position, saying she didn’t support busing now because she no longer sees state or local opposition to integration.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, took a different view in a Slate piece: “The success of white and governmental opponents to desegregation means that, today, schools are more racially segregated than in 1972.”
We still ought to ask why it is Gordon, not Biden, who is prepared to explain why opposing busing was the popular thing to do, and why the popular thing is often but not always the principled one in democratic politics. And we should beware the false binary. It is possible that Biden was sound in opposing busing even before Harris was bused and that Harris is genuinely offended by his position now.
The Harris campaign began selling T-shirts with Harris as the bused girl just hours after the first debate. She had prepared just short of the point of having her own position.
What is popular today with parents of all races is school choice, Gordon contends, “which has a record of actually working to improve educational outcomes.” Almost all of the leading candidates, including Biden and Harris, oppose it.
Given a choice between the interests of students and of donation-making teachers, the Democratic candidates choose the teachers, Gordon writes. “The trouble with that, of course, is that there are a lot more parents than there are teachers.”
Many of the leading Democratic candidates appeared at a recent forum as part of the convention of the national teachers union, the NEA, in Texas. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke staked out lonely ground when he told the gathering, “There is a place for public, non-profit charter schools.”
“The comment drew a few boos,” the AP reported, and largely “was met with silence from an audience that was otherwise boisterous throughout the afternoon.”