Opinion | Can Randi Weingarten Save Public Schools?

Rodrigues, a parent of five, said that when schools were closed, her 9-year-old gained about 40 pounds and cried hysterically every morning before his Zoom classes. “I finally said, this situation, this isolation, is breaking my kid down,” she said. Eventually she put him and one of his siblings in a Catholic school that had returned to in-person learning, and “their sparkle came back within two weeks.”

Since August, Weingarten has been traveling constantly; when I met up with her in December, she’d visited more than 60 schools. What she hears, over and over, is that this year started with exhilaration, but that moods soured as the scale of the problems teachers were facing set in.

In addition to burnout and fatigue, there are staff shortages — of teachers, substitutes, bus drivers, paraprofessionals and others. When schools closed, said Weingarten, many fired bus drivers and other employees not directly involved with teaching. Now, in an ultratight labor market, the schools can’t get them back. Schools should have money for staff from the American Rescue Plan, but Weingarten said that rather than spend on hiring, districts are holding back, perhaps uncertain about what they’ll face next.

The chaos and angst in many public schools have opened new opportunities for both private and charter schools. According to an analysis by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, charter enrollment increased 7 percent in the 2020-2021 school year from the year before. Part of that growth was likely from families who opted for established online charters when their schools shut down, and who may have since returned to their public schools. But Nina Rees, president and chief executive of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, insists that’s not the whole story, arguing that charters grew even in states that don’t have online charter programs.

Rodrigues says she’s seeing more interest in charter schools among left-leaning parents who might, in the past, have been suspicious of them. “I haven’t seen a dramatic shift to anything like vouchers,” she said. “But I have seen progressive parents who are now questioning everything, literally everything. I was watching progressives have a conversation about charter schools that I had never seen before.”

Chris Rufo, the right-wing intellectual entrepreneur behind the anti-critical race theory campaign, told me last month that the next phase of his offensive will be a push for school choice, including private school vouchers, charter schools and home-schooling. “The public schools are waging war against American children and American families,” he said, so families should have “a fundamental right to exit.”

Weingarten believes that ultimately, the campaign against critical race theory will hurt the school choice movement. As she sees it, the push for school reform was in a stronger position over a decade ago, when its champions were excoriating traditional public schools for failing Black and brown students. If prominent school choice advocates shift to attacking schools for teaching too much about racism, it becomes a lot harder for them to pose as heirs to the civil rights movement. “You’re going to tell Black people that racism doesn’t exist in this country, and you’re going to expect that somebody’s going to embrace you for that?” she said.