A weekend interview with...
... Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Weingarten, who was elected to the post this summer, spoke at the Florida Education Association annual assembly Friday afternoon. She talked with reporter Jeff Solochek beforehand about the economy, education, politics and how they all intertwine. For more information about her role as a labor leader in New York schools and nationally, check out the NY Times coverage.
You're one of the most powerful, probably, people in U.S. education now outside of the U.S. Department of Education. Tell me what you see happening nationally in terms of education, reform, if you want to use the word reform.
I actually wish that teachers were one of the most powerful actors in education right now. I think that if they were, and we were, in terms of representing both their interests as well as the interests of children nationally, public education would be in a lot better shape. I think what has happened in the last eight years or so is that there's this nice little straw man erected in that the unions are very powerful, where really at the same time teachers' voices have been stripped out of most decisions. So at the same time as the government, whether it was the Bush administration in Florida or whether it was the Bush administration in Washington, D.C., took the admirable step of making education important, it was the same time they simultaneously stripped teachers' voice. And what's happened is we've gone from starved school systems to top-down school systems to going to where they're now both starved and top-down.
And at the end of the day, in order for education to work, and I'm a big believer in high standards -- and anyone who believes that we don't believe there has to be appropriate testing and accountability has just never seen us in action. But in order to get that done for all kids, that's where the hard work comes in. And you need to have systems in schools and school systems that promote collaboration, build capacity and also engage the community both in terms of engaging parents but also thinking through involving wraparound resources because schools can't do it all.
So before the whole economic downturn, our agenda was about strengthening the institutions in which we work. That's the first thing I said when I had the honor to become the president of the national union. That has to be the No. 1 priority. And the way that I initially envisioned it before this economic maelstrom was, how do you help all teachers succeed with all kids. And that's where we start talking about collaboration, capacity building, as well as engaging the community. Now, because life does seem to change on a dime, now we also have to fight against disinvestment in public schooling.
Let me ask you about that. Because we've seen that the school systems here in Florida have been taking big hits.
Right. Even before this. Even before the Wall Street meltdown.
Now Gov. Crist has talked about cutting budgets by 10 percent. This morning, Andy Ford mentioned the idea of a three-year, 1 percent sales tax just to bolster education. Is there something ...
We are starting to look at a national campaign against disinvestment, or let me say a national approach towards disinvestment. Now, you hear at least one presidential candidate and the Congress talking about it, when they talk about economic stimulus, or when they talk about helping states and localities to bail out as well, or to rescue them as well. Because we can't have happen here what has happened to every American in terms of health care. Say you had employer-based health care, and then the employer had some problems, so they shifted costs to the employee. Now, the employee still had the same costs and probably had higher gas prices and higher milk prices. It wasn't that it was getting better health care for less money. It was just a shifting of health care costs. And that is exactly what happens when you have a national rescue plan of Wall Street, but you have this burden on localities and state governments that actually start picking up the pieces when you have the effects of a mortgage crisis, or the effects of a credit crisis.
Look here in Florida. What is the direct effect of a mortgage crisis here in Florida? Florida has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation. And who is going to pick up that burden? It's ultimately going to be individual Americans or state and local governments. So the squeeze is on from everywhere. And then that long-term investment for that one group of people that doesn't vote - kids - where does that get played out? And how is it that all of a sudden education is so important that our economic vitality depends upon it one year, but not so important (for) going to the people to see if we can find a bridge loan or find an economic stimulus? ... People say, 'No. We've got to cut our way out of it.'
Maybe it's just because I come from New York City, and I grew up when there was this fiscal crisis, and you had a credit crisis. ... So you had these immediate cuts. It took 30 years for that school system to recover. ... How many generations of kids did we lose? So, cutting your way through this is saying to kids, 'You don't count.' That's what it's saying. It's saying that we can't find a way, the adults can't find a way in this nation, to immunize kids from the devastation and to invest in them with the same importance as it was a year ago or two years ago.
Instead we hear ... a discussion about how to get rid of bad teachers. Do you have any thoughts about where that discussion is going and how it ties to this other financial conversation?
What tends to happen is that when people don't want to deal with a macroeconomic problem, they tend to demonize someone else. Look, it's no different from what McCain, or his campaign, I should say, did to Obama in the last few weeks. When he had no plan for the economy, all of a sudden you saw the campaign starting to engage in smear tactics. It's not good there, and it's not good when it's done to teachers. Does that mean that we shouldn't be confronting the issue of, if there's a bad teacher what to do? Of course. But ultimately the key staffing issue is how do you recruit and retain and support the best teachers possible. How do you get people into our profession and how do you keep them in our profession. Because at the end of the day, attrition of new teachers ... you have 30 or 40 percent in urban sectors of good teachers who are leaving. We in the AFT will never make excuses for things that don't work. We'll try to fix them. And in fact in our convention this summer we attacked this issue head-on by passing a resolution asking every local to engage in a peer review process at the start of teachers' careers so that we ourselves could monitor our own profession and counsel people out who don't belong in the profession before they had the due process protections.
We try to step up because we believe in shared responsibility. We don't believe that all the responsibility should be shifted onto the backs of teachers and principals, which is what No Child Left Behind has done with this whole testing process and sanctioning process. But we do believe in shared responsibility. And at the end of the day, teachers go into this profession to make a difference in the lives of kids. I think what is happening is that people are starting to see that this market theology, that the free market, whether it be vouchers or Wall Street or vast deregulation, that didn't help us. ... So it's going to be a very challenging time. ... (She goes on to explain the union's support of Barack Obama because of his attitude toward education, to do things "with teachers, not to teachers.") Because at the end of the day, if teachers do not buy into the reforms, if they see it as so many of these things have come and gone, the fad of the month, the idea of the year ... then I don't care how great the idea is. It's not going to take hold. ... So it's going to be a challenge....
One of the (ideas) that is floating around Florida now is the idea of differentiated pay for teachers who go to high-needs schools or are teaching in high-needs (subjects). ...
What's so funny is, a lot of these ideas are not new ideas. Some of them are really terrific ideas. In 2000, for example, the AFT passed a resolution at its convention that called for these differentials if you go to high-needs schools, these kind of differentials if you teach in high-needs subjects. But what happens is that the implementation of this very rarely happens. So one of the things we're actually doing is, we started an AFT innovation fund. ... We use the union in a top-down way to unleash bottom-up innovation. Because what we know is .. the local union can create buy-in and voice. So if we can come up with ideas that worked in other places, or ideas that have a way of working, and we can help the local union and state federation resource them, and I mean plan them, implement them ... so that you have real buy-in for bottom-up reform, then some of these really good ideas can take hold instead of somebody just saying them in a speech and then they sit on a shelf. ...
The one thing you have to do when you do things like differentiated pay is, you have to make sure that you have enough of a competitive pay base so that you're incentivizing the right things. The second thing is, you have to also make sure that the instructional plan is aligned. Pay is important. Pay is really important in terms of feeding our families, putting our kids through college, making sure you can balance life. But in schooling, you have to be sure you have aligned with it an instructional plan. You have to make sure that schools are safe. Good teachers don't go to hard to staff places if those hard to staff places are so challenging that they are always going to fail. When you talk to teachers, that's what they say. They don't want to be set up for failure. They want to be set up for success. And the flip side is also true. We see so many Title I schools, challenging places, that when you have a good instructional plan, support for teachers, a good environment, that in some ways regardless of the pay people stay in those places ...
You see it even with parents who want to send their kids to charter schools, or who want vouchers for their kids. Their No. 1 issue is safety of the place. So when we are talking about reforming tough schools, we have to talk about ensuring that teachers and students are safe there, as well as the pay.
What about the charter schools, the vouchers and things like that? You're not someone who's been opposed to all those things.
Well, we've been very opposed to vouchers. We're opposed to unaccountable charter schools. Look, in New York, the UFT runs two charter schools and we are now engaged with Green Dot to run a third. And the AFT represents teachers in over 70 charter schools. ... So the issue is, charter schools have to be held to the same standards as the other public schools and there can't be the kind of cherry picking that says the charter schools can either siphon off money from the public schools or can pick and choose which students they want instead of having a real equal lottery the way the public schools would have to do.
So Florida's model is closer to something you would support than some of the other ones?
Right. Certainly Florida's system is better than the Ohio system. But what we've seen is some charters very well, and some charters do very poorly, just like some public schools do very well and some public schools do very poorly. But when you have this squeeze for resources, you can't leave the most disenfranchised farther apart. And what we've seen with vouchers is, the key argument for voucher proponents was that if you give some kids a voucher, that will spur on competition and change in the public school system. Ten years, there's been vouchers in D.C. ... For a long enough time in Milwaukee. That didn't spur on the change. Those systems did not improve with the vouchers. And what we've seen is that academic achievement was virtually identical for kids who went to school with the voucher vs. kids who stayed in the public school system. ... These are not experiments that have worked. (She again speaks favorably about Obama.)
What do you see happening with No Child Left Behind?
... We have talked about having a whole new federal law, one that values standards and assessments but really looks at how we educate the whole child rather than narrow the curriculum.
While you're here in Florida, what are you telling Florida teachers? What do they need to hear that they can do here?
I'm going to talk about the innovation fund that we've started. Because that is a fund that even in a period of time like this the AFT has invested $1-million ... so people can try ideas they think they will work. Perk those ideas, just like big corporations have R&D divisions, the people do the work have to perk be able to some of these ideas. Because we know bottom-up reform, where there's built-in voice and built-in buy-in, really works. ... I want to talk about what we have to do both nationally and locally to fight against disinvestment. And I'm going to talk about strengthening our institutions. What we've seen is the FEA is very committed to that. And I'm proud that the first state federation meeting that I've been at since I've been elected ... is in Florida.