Thursday Reading List: #ProtectTransKids, Union Politics, and Detroit Schools

As Jeremy Peters, Jo Becker, and Julie Hirschfeld Davis of The New York Times report, the Trump administration yesterday rescinded civil protections for transgender children in American schools:

President Trump on Wednesday rescinded protections for transgender students that had allowed them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity, overruling his own education secretary and placing his administration firmly in the middle of the culture wars that many Republicans have tried to leave behind. In a joint letter, the top civil rights officials from the Justice Department and the Education Department rejected the Obama administration’s position that nondiscrimination laws require schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice.

It is important to note that students already had these protections, and that the administration went out of its way to take them away. I'm sure that the "white working class" voter with which the media is so infatuated loves the fact that the administration spent at least two of its first thirty days figuring out the legal ramifications of this move. As Evan Hurst at Wonkette points out, the machinations may have revealed some fissures in the administration, as the press is reporting that secretary of education Betsy DeVos was against the move:

Reportedly, the draft of the order says the Obama guidance has to be rescinded because it’s too confusing, and there are all these bigot states filing suit against it, because they’re human trash who want LGBT kids to be bullied. But the Times says the letter also includes a line that says, “Schools must ensure that transgender students, like all students, are able to learn in a safe environment,” and apparently DeVos was the one who pushed for that line. How weird! Like, what made Betsy DeVos get up on the smart, compassionate side of the bed on this issue, and can we encourage her to do it more often?

There are a couple of potential interpretations here. One is that Betsy DeVos genuinely thinks it was wrongheaded, and unnecessarily cruel, to claw back the small amount of support that the federal government was providing to a particularly vulnerable population of children. The more cynical way to view this story, is that the administration was always going to rescind this guidance, and that letting DeVos disagree publicly with Jeff Sessions would give her a temporary, harmless PR coup after a bruising confirmation process. Whatever the case, we should take two lessons from this. First, if her conscience did indeed show up, it didn't matter, because the administration still followed the lead of its retro-racist attorney general, who obviously commands a lot more power in Washington than DeVos does. Second, if the more cynical interpretation of the situation is correct, and DeVos needed to have the backs of transgender students as a PR win, that's actually not a bad thing. Outside political pressure matters, and in this case, that pressure might have forced the hand of a cabinet secretary.

Speaking of outside pressure, Graham Vyse of The New Republic looks at the contrasting approaches to DeVos that the two major teachers' unions are taking:

Teachers unions, which have given hundreds of millions of dollars to the Democratic Party over the years, led the fight against DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor and education philanthropist. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers released a joint letter decrying the “two decades she has spent attempting to dismantle the American public school system" ... Few public school teachers, it seems, are willing to give DeVos the benefit of the doubt. That’s certainly true of Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, the largest union of any kind in America (3.2 million members). “She will get no grace, and she deserves no grace,” Eskelsen García told me on the eve of DeVos’s confirmation vote. But Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (1.6 million members), feels slightly differently. Whereas the NEA is declaring outright opposition, the AFT is cautiously engaging with DeVos, holding out hope for common ground.

Insiders won't be surprised by this, as Weingarten has a history of cutting deals and crossing lines to achieve goals. It's also important to note that the AFT has a centralized power structure, wherein Weingarten has significant policymaking authority for the national union. Eskelen-García, on the other hand, serves more like a ceremonial figure over her local chapters, with little in the way of actual authority. In other words, her resistance, while probably stirring to her base, reflects the extent to which she doesn't have any authority to cut deals. The other meta lesson here is that the unions aren't hegemonic, and if you're interested in education policy, it's important to understand their respective power structures.

Finally, the program "The Stream" on Al-Jazeera English did a long segment on charter schools in Detroit. It features Erin Einhorn from Chalkbeat, Terrence Martin from the Detroit Federation of Teachers, parent organizers, and more. I thought the hosts did a nice job of providing balance, while pushing back on everyone. Take a look: