May 13, 2017
By Steven Wishnia
On June 1, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten will be one of four people honored at LaborPress’s annual Leadership Awards.
We spoke with her via email in early May about issues affecting the AFT and American public education, from the union’s successes organizing nurses, charter-school teachers, and college faculty to the “existential threat” public schools face under the Trump administration.
LaborPress: What are your main priorities for the AFT in the near future?
Randi Weingarten: When you listen to the American people, regardless of political preference, you hear similar hopes and aspirations. They want good jobs that pay a living wage and provide a secure retirement, health-care coverage so they’re not one illness away from bankruptcy, kids to have a ladder of opportunity, public schools that are safe and welcoming, a next generation that does better than we did and is not burdened by debt, and a strong and vibrant democracy with civil-rights protections for all.
Public education is the foundation of our democracy, the center of most communities, and provides a pathway to opportunity for kids. Regrettably, we are facing an existential threat to public schools. President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos want to abandon public education as a civic institution, and push vouchers and privatization. Self-described reformers like DeVos promote failed approaches like vouchers and for-profit charter schools, test-based accountability, school closures, competition, and firing teachers rather than developing their skills. They persist in pursuing their ideology over facts and evidence. We will fight back against these attacks on public education and fight forward for what works, for bringing joy to teaching and learning, for equitable education and making sure educators have a voice in the education of their students.
Great public schools have common traits, or four pillars:
1.Promoting children’s well-being. Education starts with meeting children where they are. We have to focus on children’s well-being so that we confront, not ignore, the consequences of poverty. To help disadvantaged children feel safe, valued, and able to concentrate in school, they need services that offset the effects of poverty, such as health and dental clinics, social workers, guidance counselors, before- and after-school programs, and other enrichment programs.
2.Supporting powerful learning. Students need engaging instruction, not testing and test prep, to develop themselves academically, for work, civic life, and to lead fulfilling lives. Students should learn how to apply their knowledge, investigate, strategize, and collaborate.
3.Building teacher capacity. You can’t throw the keys to teachers and tell them to just do it. Becoming an accomplished teacher requires time, support, and intentional focus. This includes teacher-residency programs that pair prospective teachers with accomplished teachers, and opportunities for new and veteran teachers to share their expertise with colleagues.
4.Fostering school and community collaboration. The glue that holds all of this together is having educators, parents, and community work together.
Where is the AFT organizing?
Workers’ power resides at the ballot box and the bargaining table. We use collective bargaining not just to secure the basics, like fair pay, benefits, and working conditions, but also to help kids and improve their schools. For our health-care members, we use bargaining to ensure safe and healthy conditions for patients and their health-care workers. For our public employees, collective bargaining is used to preserve and improve essential services that citizens depend on.
Since about 2005, charter-school teachers have come to the AFT seeking representation, because they want a voice to improve conditions at their school. Today, the AFT represents teachers in 223 schools in 15 states.
Higher-education organizing has been very active. In the last two years, the AFT has won elections and first-contract campaigns for more than 5,000 full-time faculty (tenure track and non-tenure track), graduate assistants (including at private institutions), and adjunct faculty (who are the lowest-paid and most job-insecure faction in higher education). We’ve won these elections across the country, including in Pennsylvania, Oregon, Florida, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey.
The AFT is now the second largest nurses’ union in the nation. Over the last two years, AFT’s health-care worker organizing has soared, with 10,000 new members. These include registered nurses, professionals like psychologists and pharmacists, technicians like respiratory therapists, and hospital service and maintenance workers.
What parts of the Trump-DeVos education agenda are most important to oppose?
The Trump-DeVos education takes a meat cleaver to public education. The budget is merciless and slashes public education funding by $9.2 billion, or 13.5 percent. Yet there is an increase of $1.3 billion for vouchers and other privatization. This reflects their antipathy for public education and exuberant support for privatization, despite research and other evidence showing those are failed strategies. For example, DeVos’s own Education Department just released a study showing that the federally funded D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program—a voucher program—actually had a negative impact. Students in the voucher program actually did worse than those who weren’t chosen by the program’s lottery and remained in public school.
The budget cuts are craven: after-school and summer programs, community schools, class-size reduction, and the supports kids need and parents rely on.
What changes do you think would help teachers and students most? Smaller class sizes?
Teachers need the tools, time, support, and resources to do their jobs and help their kids succeed. That means we need safe and welcoming schools; sufficient, well-maintained, and modern technology, as well as basics such as enough textbooks; time to prepare their lessons and collaborate with colleagues; meaningful professional development for teachers to sharpen their skills; and small class sizes, to be able to maintain discipline and individualize instruction. And teachers and the teaching profession need respect, not demonization that blames teachers and their unions for poor student performance without providing the things that teachers and students need to succeed. These are the elements of education in the top-achieving nations, none of whom use privatization strategies.