Union Chief to Dems: You Have Our Votes; We Need You to Fix Schools

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says national education policy has to start with listening to teachers.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. (Photo: Mark Bonifacio/‘New York Daily News’ via Getty Images)

Aug 3, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

In national politics, teachers unions and the Democratic Party usually go together like blackboard erasers and chalk dust: It’s nearly impossible to have one without the other. It’s no surprise, then, that both major teachers unions have endorsed Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ presidential nominee.

Yet union president Randi Weingarten acknowledges she wanted to make President Barack Obama, a two-term Democrat, stay after school and clap the erasers for his early support of education reform through testing and teacher accountability, dovetailing Bush-era education reform policies she says did more harm than good.

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“That has been the education policy for the last decade, and as much as I love President Obama, he participated in it to some extent,” Weingarten, president of the 1.6-million-member American Federation of Teachers, said in a wide-ranging, one-on-one interview with TakePart last week at the Democratic National Convention.

“[But] he’s changed. He’s given us a mea culpa because he’s seen how it demoralized educators. It has given people an excuse not to invest in education and our kids by over-testing and under-teaching, when half of our kids are in poverty,” Weingarten said.

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Now, education advocates on both sides of the political aisle—perhaps inspired by grassroots protests, scandal, and local pushback—have broken their “fixation” with timed, fill-in-the-bubble tests in public schools, she said.

Policy makers “understand you need to focus on the whole child instead of a testing fixation. We need to actually invest in strategies that we know will work. Starting from pre-K, we need to engage in kids [in the classroom] and invest in their well-being,” Weingarten said. “We have to nurture, sustain, and support a teaching course building their capacity. So there’s much more of a consensus, policy-wise, in terms of what we have to do.”

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Still, there’s a long way to go to turn around the nation’s public schools, she said.

“The damage has been done, between austerity and demoralization and demonization and de-professionalization” of the teaching profession, Weingarten said. “And we’ve actually kind of opened up the doors to privatization and destabilizing schools, throughout the community and throughout the country,” through the promotion of taxpayer-funded charter schools.

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Weingarten spoke to TakePart the day after she delivered a full-throated endorsement of Clinton during the DNC in Philadelphia last week. She touted the former secretary of state’s long history of child advocacy work and pointed to Clinton’s plan for early childhood education and her desire to “reset” national education policy to focus less on testing and more on critical thinking skills.

In the interview, however, Weingarten identified the biggest long-term challenges for the public education system: school resegregation, teacher burnout, unequal school funding, and poor kids struggling with needs that teachers alone can’t fill.

On the campaign trail during the last year, “college has gotten most of the play,” with proposals on the left and the right to help bring student debt under control, Weingarten said. But the education agenda has to include things like “multiple pathways to high school graduation, ensuring that STEAM—science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math—is baked into it, really nurturing teachers, supporting them, honoring them, making sure we don’t misuse testing, focusing on how we turn around segregation again. So I think a lot of things are on the table,” she said.

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Because the American Federation of Teachers leans to the left, it’s not surprising that Weingarten isn’t happy with the Republicans’ education agenda. “They don’t have anything to say, because [starting with No Child Left Behind] every one of their ideas has been on display in the last 10 years or so, and they’ve failed miserably,” she said. She prefers Democrats’ plans for “investment” in schools and kids.

But the most important change, she said, will be if the next education secretary talks less and listens more—particularly to educators who’ve figured out ways to make the system work for kids.

“Frankly, there are lots of schools across the country that are doing really well. We need to nurture them,” Weingarten said. “We need to scale up the strategies to succeed, we need to invest in them, but we actually have a good agenda for education, starting with prekindergarten.”

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“Let’s listen to the people who are actually making a difference in the lives of kids,” she continued. “Let’s listen to our schoolteachers, let’s listen to our principals, let’s listen to our parents, listen to the people who are making a difference in the lives of kids through thick and thin, through austerity and through times of plenty.”

They know what’s most important, she said. “They want kids to succeed.”