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‘Control Freaks’ Are ‘Losing Their Grip’ on Education (Opinion)

Corey DeAngelis is a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children and the executive director of the Educational Freedom Institute. He’s a controversial, highly visible school choice champion who’s engaged in high-profile clashes with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, AFT chief Randi Weingarten, and many others. He’s now out with a new book, The Parent Revolution: Rescuing Your Kids from the Radicals Ruining Our Schools (which was the #1 new release on Amazon as I was drafting this introduction). It seemed like a good opportunity to chat with Corey about his book, his oft-controversial rhetoric, the state of school choice, and his role in the education debates. Here’s what he had to say.

—Rick

Rick: Your new book is titled The Parent Revolution. Can you say a bit about the revolution you’re discussing and what’s fueling it?

Corey: The teachers’ unions overplayed their hand by fighting to keep schools closed during the COVID era. They leveraged the school closures to extract billions of dollars from taxpayers while private schools and businesses were reopening. The good news is the power-hungry unions’ plans quickly backfired. Through remote learning, which was prolonged by unions, families were able to see what was happening in the classroom. Families who thought their kids were in “good” public schools started to see another dimension of school quality that’s arguably more important than standardized-test scores: whether the school’s curriculum aligned with their values. The unions inadvertently awakened a sleeping giant: parents. Parents—the kids’ union—sparked a revolution by banding together and commanding the attention of politicians. This revolution has led to a tidal wave of policies expanding education freedom.

Rick: You describe recent gains in school choice as a “tidal wave” of shifting politics and new state policies. How big have those gains been? And how do they compare with what we’ve seen in the past few decades?

Corey: I wish Milton Friedman were alive today to witness his vision of universal school choice come to fruition. Since 2021, 11 states controlled by Republican legislatures have passed policies allowing all families to take their children’s education dollars to the education providers of their choosing, whether that be a public, private, charter, or home-based education option. For decades, the school choice movement experienced much smaller wins with incremental reforms. But that changed with the parent revolution. We’ve basically gone from zero to 100 on school choice, and the new barometer of true success is whether the initiative is available to all families. No more picking winners and losers. Taxpayers fund public education for all families, regardless of income. All families should be able to take their children’s education money to the school that best meets their needs.

Rick: So, how did you get involved in the education debates in the first place?

Corey: I went to government schools my entire K–12 education in San Antonio, Texas. However, I attended a magnet high school, which was a great opportunity. Other families should have education options as well, and those options shouldn’t be limited to schools run by the government. Education funding should follow students to the public, private, charter, or home school that best meets their needs. I later researched the effects of school choice initiatives during my Ph.D. in education policy at the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform. My first study there—co-authored with Patrick J. Wolf—found reductions in adult crime associated with access to the Milwaukee private school choice program. I finished my Ph.D., moved to think tanks, and now, I’m at the American Federation for Children, where we’re racking up wins for education freedom against the radicals ruining our schools.

Rick: You tend to describe yourself, in the book and elsewhere, as battling for “educational freedom.” What do you mean by that? And how, if at all, is it different from advocating “school choice”?

Corey: Education freedom is the power wielded by parents to be the primary decisionmakers in directing the upbringing of their children and their education. School choice—allowing the money to follow the child—is the best policy to promote education freedom. School choice allows families to access more education opportunities than their child’s assigned government-run school. School choice also provides an incentive for their assigned schools to up their game and compete. Options give parents agency, which make it less likely that they’ll need to vote with their feet. When families are empowered to exit, public schools are more likely to listen to them. Other policies could help promote education freedom as well, including curriculum transparency, notifying parents if their child changes his or her gender at school, and aligning school board elections with the general election to reduce the chances of anti-parent special interests determining outcomes.

Rick: The subtitle of the book is Rescuing Your Kids from the Radicals Ruining Our Schools. Who are these “radicals,” and what are they doing? How prevalent do you think they are?

Corey: The radicals are the teachers’ union bosses. The leaders of these unions are radicals who care more about their political agendas and extracting resources from taxpayers than meeting the needs of children. These union bosses constantly fight against school choice because they know it threatens their monopoly. Some government school employees also view the school system as a way to raise other people’s kids in their socialist worldview—and that’s why parents are so upset. We’ve seen many anecdotes of employees focusing on indoctrination rather than education, but the specific number of incidents isn’t known, nor does it matter as much. That some families are upset about radicals ruining their schools is enough of an argument to support school choice. If the issue is not widespread—as the teachers’ union radicals claim—then they should have nothing to worry about. Families will continue sending their kids to the assigned government schools if they’re doing such a great job.

Rick: The first chapter of the book is titled “Holding America’s Kids Hostage.” That’s obviously an aggressive metaphor. Who are the hostage-takers here, and what is it they’re after?

Corey: The power-hungry teachers’ unions held children’s education hostage to secure billions of dollars in ransom payments from taxpayers by keeping schools closed during the COVID era. States received about $190 billion in so-called COVID relief for education since March 2020, more than the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. Randi Weingarten’s union threatened strikes in 2020 and lobbied the CDC to keep schools closed. Their fearmongering knew no bounds. Chicago Teachers Union posted and then deleted a tweet claiming “the push to reopen schools is rooted in sexism, racism, and misogyny.” Teachers’ unions were using fake body bags, caskets, and tombstones as props to protest going back to work. Their anti-child stance that was revealed during COVID isn’t new, though. Unions frequently use kids as political pawns in their negotiations with school districts to extract money and other benefits from taxpayers.

Rick: As you know, many in and around public education are offended by the kind of language you use. What do you say to those who regard your critique as unfair or malicious?

Corey: If you’re offended by the truth, then you just might be one of the radicals ruining our schools. The nefarious actors are the ones who are fighting—for their own benefit—to trap other people’s children in their failing government schools. All I’m saying is that families should be the ones making the decisions for their own kids. The radicals also really don’t like it when I call government schools what they are: government schools. They are run by the government, regulated by the government, assigned by the government, compelled by the government, and funded by the government. They discriminate by ZIP code. They are government schools. They aren’t “public” in any meaningful sense of the word, either. Families have been fined or even imprisoned for lying about their address to get their kids into better so-called public schools.

Rick: In the book, you talk at some length about hypocrisy on the part of teachers’ unions and Democratic officials. What are some examples of what you have in mind?

Corey: Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates called school choice racist just a year before sending her own son to a private school. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, declared a “state of emergency” over a school choice bill after sending his own child to a private school. California Governor Gavin Newsom, also a Democrat, complained about the failures of Zoom school when he was sending his own kids to in-person private school. A Chicago Teachers Union board member was caught vacationing in Puerto Rico while railing against going back to work over “safety” concerns in 2020. Senator Elizabeth Warren lied on video about where she sent her kids to school after I revealed in 2019 that she actually sent her son to private school. I’m glad their families had those opportunities. But they shouldn’t fight against school choice for others.

Rick: Of course, many of those you accuse of hypocrisy argue that they’re just trying to protect public schools from those intent on tearing them down. How do you respond to such concerns?

Corey: School choice is a rising tide that lifts all boats. Twenty-six of 29 studies on the topic, and a peer-reviewed meta-analysis from 2022, found that private school choice competition may lead to better outcomes in public schools. Government schools are just trying to protect their gravy train so that they don’t have to compete. The union radicals want to keep your kids trapped in their government schools because they think your children—and the money meant for educating them—belong to their institutions. Ironically, they’re the ones tearing down their own institutions by fighting against any form of accountability every step of the way. Competition builds their institutions up; radical unions tear them down.

Rick: Over time, what have those fighting to expand school choice gotten most right? And what’s been their biggest mistake or misstep?

Corey: School choice advocates have done a really good job winning the battle of ideas. There aren’t any good arguments against it. Choice advocates, however, historically leaned too heavily into lefty arguments for school choice. School choice is an equalizer and a bipartisan issue among voters, but these arguments haven’t translated to much political support from elected officials on the left because the Democrat Party is a subsidiary of the teachers’ unions. The better path forward, as we’ve witnessed in recent years, is to make school choice a GOP litmus-test issue. The more Republicans leaned into parental rights in education as a political winner, the more it became politically disastrous for Democrats to oppose it. In a sense, almost counterintuitively, hyper-partisanship in the short run will lead to bipartisanship in the long run. That’s because too many politicians respond more to power than to logic.

Rick: In the book, you talk about the way traditional schools and their advocates have pushed back on choice advocates. Can you offer a few examples of the kind of thing you have in mind?

Corey: The defenders of the status quo use every tool at their disposal. They donate to legislators to protect the union monopoly at the expense of students. They weaponize the courts and try to refer school choice initiatives to the ballot for more bites at the apple after they fail to block education freedom in the statehouse. The unions may succeed in slowing down school choice expansion occasionally, but they can’t stop it, because parents have woken up, and they’re never going back to sleep. The Arizona union groups stalled the implementation of universal school choice in 2022 by claiming they had enough signatures to refer it to the ballot. They turned in about 50,000 fewer signatures than they claimed; they were either lying or bad at math. The union failed because parents already benefiting from the program showed up to the union’s signature-gathering locations and informed the voters of the facts. The kids’ union beat the teachers’ union.

Rick: In 2023, Vox declared you the “public face” of the educational choice movement. What does that mean, and how do you understand your role in the public debate?

Corey: I was called a “school choice evangelist” by an opponent at one point and ran with it by adding it to my bio on X. I’m very active on social media, and my following initially grew by arguing with teachers’ union lackeys. I make the case for education freedom and mobilize the grassroots at rallies across the country. Legislators also want to know they’re on the right side of history—and that they’re equipped with the facts to win debates in the statehouse. My account helps them craft their own arguments for education freedom, and many lawmakers have repeated my lines publicly. I also like to show how school choice has become a political winner. Just look at the political earthquake that rocked Texas on Super Tuesday. Ten of the 13 Republican incumbents targeted by my organization’s school choice super PAC lost their primaries outright or were forced into runoffs after voting against school choice.

Rick: What kind of role, if any, would you like to see the federal government play on the issues you discuss?

Corey: We should abolish the Department of Education. The word “education” isn’t in the Constitution, and the department was created as a payoff to the teachers’ union in 1979. If the funding is going to be extracted from taxpayers, however, it should go directly to students as opposed to institutions. The Educational Choice for Children Act would be a step in the right direction toward empowering parents instead of bureaucrats. The federal tax-credit-funded school choice initiative would supercharge school choice initiatives already happening in red states while expanding opportunities to families in blue states. The bill already has 150 Republican co-sponsors in the House, including Speaker Mike Johnson.

Rick: Last question. What would you like to see done beyond school choice?

Corey: School choice is the best solution because bottom-up accountability is the strongest form of accountability that exists. That said, it doesn’t need to be the only solution. The Parent Revolution documents other reforms that would improve the public education system including, as I mentioned earlier, curriculum transparency, informing parents if their child changes their gender at school, and aligning school board elections with the general elections so that special interests don’t control the outcomes of low-turnout races. We should also reduce the stranglehold of the teachers’ unions over our nation’s education system by banning collective bargaining with government school districts in every state. The good news is the control freaks over at the teachers’ unions are already losing their grip on our children’s education—and they only have themselves to blame.

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