An Open Exchange with AFT President Randi Weingarten

On October 26 and 27, 2013, I exchanged a number of emails with American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten. I had planned to write a post about Weingarten, which I did on October 27. My post took the form of an open letter to her. I sent it to her for her response in hopes that I might publish both together as a discourse. She agreed and responded to my letter on November 3. I told her that whatever she decided to write I would post.

Both letters are below, first mine;  then Weingarten’s response.

My letter is pointed and confrontational. It honestly captures my concerns about Weingarten and AFT. In it, I ask Weingarten to consider taking three specific actions.

Rather than offering any comments on Weingarten’s response, I wish to simply allow readers to read both letters and form their own opinions. I invite reader comments at the end of this post. Readers might disagree, even strongly, with me or with Weingarten; however, I ask that comments be written using civil language.

And now, for the letters.

I offer mine first:

October 27, 2013

Randi,

Yesterday, I committed to my fellow bloggers on our bloggers network to write a post on you. A primary question I have regards your teaching credentials. I am also concerned about your interactions with notable reform philanthropists Bill Gates and Eli Broad and your unyielding dedication to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

Based upon our email exchange yesterday, I believe that you really do want to support public school teachers. However, I think that in general, you have lost our confidence and our trust.  Just read the comments associated with numerous posts tagged using your name on Diane Ravitch’s blog. The negative sentiment is undeniable.

Your choices have provoked this loss of our support.

I really want to think better of you, Randi. My disappointment is not superficial. It is not based upon your position as a union president. I am not anti-union. Far from it. I have been a member of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT) since my post-Katrina return to southern Louisiana and to the public school classroom seven years ago. Moreover, in this past year, I have participated in two expert panels in public meetings sponsored by LFT and the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE).

This post is my effort to re-establish my own trust in you as my national union president. I hope to bring scores of disillusioned colleagues with me.  Thus, I will ask you to consider following through on three requests.

1.  Clearly outline your classroom teaching experience in your (American Federation of Teachers) AFT bio.

This might seem to be a ridiculous request given that you have been AFT president for over five years now. However, we are in the throes of a nationwide corporate reformer gloss over nebulous credentials. Opportunists outside of teaching are seizing our profession. Their true professional identities are in other fields. I understand that your primary professional identity is that of lawyer. This is no secret. However, I am asking you to be transparent regarding the details of your actual classroom experience.

As it stands, this is your classroom experience as noted in your AFT bio:

A teacher of history at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood from 1991 to 1997, Weingarten helped her students win several state and national awards debating constitutional issues. 

Not enough information.

In the current privatization environment, unclear credentials and experience breed mistrust. On several occasions, I have been involved in online conversations in which teachers debated your teaching experience, especially as such concerns your full time teaching experience. I have read some articles that claim to offer such details, but I do not consider these articles as solid enough for me to cite, neither here nor as part of my book. That is why I presented the question to you in an email.

I do not teach in New York; however, I have been able to determine from both the EngageNY website as well as from former United Federation of Teachers (UFT) contracts that teaching five classes in a semester is considered “full time.”

Randi, in our email exchange yesterday, you provided information enough for me to write to some degree regarding the number of your full time semesters versus the number of your part time semesters of classroom teaching experience at Clara Barton. Instead, I would like to offer you the opportunity to provide such information in your own words as part of your response to this post.

I ask that you provide similar clarification in your AFT bio.

2.  Return the Gates funding still in AFT possession.

Bill Gates is purchasing American education and fashioning it according to his whims. On September 21, 2013, Gates made the comment, “It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.”

Education stuff?

I am tired of being Bill Gates’ laboratory mouse.

I am distressed that my national union president willingly participates in the experimentation.

Since January 2009, AFT has accepted over $11.3 million from the Gates Foundation, $5.4 million of which is earmarked for CCSS.

Randi, I am asking you to return Gates’ money. And I am asking you to halt the chummy alliances with Gates and other philanthropic reformers bent upon selling off my profession, such as Eli Broad. Accepting money from privatizers is akin to selling your office. Such actions compromise your position as a union president. Plus it just looks bad to your constituents.

3. Drop support for CCSS.

You publicly support CCSS, and you maintain that 75 percent of teachers also support CCSS.

If this were true, then teachers speaking out in favor of keeping CCSS would outnumber dissenters three to one.

Where are all of these scores of teacher supporters for CCSS now?

“Overwhelming” CCSS teacher support isn’t happening. What is happening in states across the nation is an “overwhelming” rejection of CCSS– and not just the tests: rejection of the entire government-corporate-and-nonprofit-arranged CCSS.

My own school district, St. Tammany Schools (Louisiana) both drafted and approved an anti-CCSS resolution this month. From the outset, St. Tammany did not approve of CCSS but had no say in the matter; only two signatures were required for an entire state to “adopt” CCSS as a requirement of Race to the Top funding: the governor and state superintendent.

Sounds pretty “top-down” to me.

I’m tired of having my classroom controlled from the outside.

I ask that you read the posts on Diane’s blog regarding CCSS reception. Read my post on the CCSS memorandum of understanding. Consider carefully what you have read. Then please publicly drop CCSS.

In Closing

Randi, thank you for considering my requests. And thank you in advance for responding to my post.

I hope that my words move you to act.

Sincerely,

–Mercedes Schneider

And now, for Weingarten’s response:

November 3, 2013

Mercedes:

As I told you in emails last week, I would spend some time this week trying to respond to both your open letter and your other requests.

The questions on the Common Core are important, which is why I have devoted another one of my Sunday New York Times and Huffington Post<http://www.huffingtonpost.com/randi-weingarten/will-states-fail-the-comm_b_4206013.html&gt; columns to address both the reasons we support its potential and our solidarity with the educators and parents and others who are disgusted and demoralized by the botched implementation and the ongoing testing fixation.

As to the standards, just like you’ve weighed in, teachers have also weighed in on the other side. Just recently, teachers of the year in both Montana and North Dakota, two merged AFT-NEA states, announced their support for the Common Core. And I speak to teachers and parents constantly, like the educators I saw in Long Island last weekend; in Gary, Ind., on Thursday; in Baltimore on Friday; and in New York City today. People are frustrated, but like the polls of educators that the AFT, the NEA, Scholastic and others have conducted show, teachers believe in standards, with caveats—they want the time and tools so they are prepared, they want our students to have the necessary supports, they want the standards to be developmentally appropriate, and they want this testing fixation to end. I also wonder why you would continually criticize random sample polling by a reputable pollster, which is what the March 2013 AFT poll was based upon, yet at the same time you conclude the comments on Diane Ravitch’s blog are a far better sampling.

As to the Gates Foundation funding, we’ve always been open about the funding we’ve received. And we’ve never shied away from being critical of the Gates Foundation or others. And while it’s far from perfect, I believe our engagement has actually made the Gates Foundation more open to the challenges teachers face.

The funds we’ve received have been used to support projects like the AFT Innovation Fund, which has awarded grants that have enabled our affiliates in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and elsewhere to create teacher-developed lessons that are now available to all educators on Share My Lesson. Additionally, all too often, districts and policymakers roll out new policies and tell teachers to just do it. These funds are used to help rank-and-file members have access to training and tools that help them address what is seemingly a new “requirement” every day.

As to the questions you asked about my professional life, I thank you for disclosing that much of what prompted your questions came from two New York City UFT bloggers who were involved in different union caucuses (political parties) than the one I belonged to. The UFT has a thriving democracy, where lots of allegations are bandied about—particularly around union elections. Ironically, the third source you cite, Wayne Barrett, was the one Joel Klein used to smear me when he went to war with the union.

I’ve made a lifetime commitment to the union movement and to public education. It stems from my mother’s own teaching experience—including bearing witness to the six week strike she and her colleagues in Nyack, NY waged in the mid 1970s, and watching her devotion to the kids she taught, her love for her colleagues and her commitment to make a difference in the world. For me, the labor movement and public education are linked as the essential building blocks to a strong middle class and a path to the American dream. It’s why I went to Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations as an undergrad and then to law school. It’s why I tried to find a job at a union-side labor law firm when I first graduated from law school—but the doors were shut because they wanted lawyers with experience. It’s also why I left practicing law at Stroock and Stroock and Lavan, where I was on the path to become a partner, to become Sandy Feldman’s counsel when she became president of the UFT in 1986. And it’s why I started teaching high school social studies in 1991, at Clara Barton High School in Crown Heights Brooklyn a few weeks after the Crown Heights riots.

I taught from 1991 to 1997, full and part time, at Clara Barton High School. High schools in New York City are organized on a semester basis, so for one semester I taught five periods and did lunch duty. During the other five and a half years, I taught one, two or three courses, as I was also the counsel and chief negotiator for the UFT. This was similar to other UFTers who also held union responsibilities. For several years during this time, Dr. Leo Casey and I led our students in the “We the People” civics debate competition.

When I began teaching at Clara Barton, I did so both because I wanted to teach—as my mother had—to make a difference in kids’ lives and out of a desire to better understand the experiences and the trials and tribulations of New York City educators, in order to better represent them. I had enjoyed teaching law school students, and I looked forward to the challenges of teaching high school students in an inner-city high school. It was harder—a lot harder—and a lot more rewarding than anything I had ever done.

In 1991, when I started teaching, Al Shanker was in his prime as AFT president, and Sandy Feldman was hitting her stride as UFT president. It was not until 1996/1997, when Al’s untimely illness and passing led Sandy Feldman to take on the position of AFT president and resign as head of the UFT, that I was asked to consider running for UFT president.

At Clara Barton, I taught students who were predominantly immigrant, all minority, mostly female, and entirely from working-class and poor families. I learned that with the right supports for students and teachers, it was entirely possible to teach critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving and the comprehension of difficult texts to students who did not come from privilege. I watched my students become confident about learning and about themselves, and learn how to navigate challenges in their lives. It wasn’t easy. There were lots of starts and stops—no straight-line trajectory that today’s market-based and test-fixated “reformers” would have you believe.

And that experience made crystal clear why teacher preparation and experience—not simply passion and love—is so crucial to creating a good environment for teaching and learning—something you have spoken about. But it is also why I disagree with you about standards. They are not the silver bullet that Arne Duncan and the “reformers” make them out to be, but they are an important piece of equity and leverage in the struggle to ensure that students like the ones I taught and loved at Clara Barton receive a quality education that opens up for them the opportunity to live out their American dream and become full, productive citizens leading lives of meaning and purpose. It’s also why I personally fight so hard for a pathway to citizenship and to fix, not close neighborhood schools, like we did when we had a Chancellor we could work with , Chancellor Crew, in establishing the Chancellor’s District in the late 1990s.

I stopped teaching in June 1997 because I had been appointed Sandy Feldman’s executive assistant when she was elected the interim president of the AFT upon Al Shanker’s death earlier that year, while continuing as UFT president. I didn’t think I could carry out both my teaching and union responsibilities well—particularly whether I could be present for my students and classes given all the emergencies and exigencies that occur daily in New York City. Public school teaching was the best job in my life, and I miss it today. I am still a teacher on leave with the New York City Board of Education, and hope one day to teach high school again.

Your earlier emails suggested issues I will clear up as well. Contrary to what you’ve been told, I had a long relationship with Clara Barton High School, dating back to its 1987 asbestos crisis. The faculty sued the Board of Education for its failure to contain asbestos, and I was assigned by the union to help. That is where I met Leo Casey. I negotiated an asbestos protocol, which evolved into a health and safety program for the city’s students and teachers. Barton was the tip of the iceberg—the public schools in New York City were closed for more than a week in September 1993 as a result of the discovery that many of the AHERA reports, like the ones we discovered at Barton in 1987, were not correct. The union’s work in health and safety was credited as the basis for fully opening schools safely for students and staff that September and for the resources that went into repairing and maintaining and ultimately building new schools, after a lawsuit I brought as UFT counsel in 1994 challenging the horrible physical conditions of the New York City schools.

As to my preparation to teach, again contrary to what you’ve been told, I took every course and credential the state and the Board of Education required to be certified as a teacher. I was an alternatively certified teacher, as were thousands of teachers pre-TFA that came in through the alternative route. We were “per diem” teachers, which is why the school records referred to in theVillage Voice article coded me as such. I experienced what other professionals working for the city Department of Education experienced. I used to joke that it took me longer to get my permanent certification as a teacher than to go to law school and be admitted to the bar.

I was also not the only lawyer/teacher/union official in UFT history. Jules Kolodny, a former officer of the UFT who was tragically killed in an accident in Europe, was a lawyer, and like me, used those skills extensively in the service of the members and our students.

As to the rumors about me, I am sure there were many—as there always are. Unfortunately, the ones I heard were about the fact I was young, gay, that I was more left than others in the union, and that I wanted to open up the lines of communication with many of the other caucuses, which one of your sources applauded at the time. This was and is rooted in a deep belief in democratic unionism—and ensuring our members have a real voice. And while I was UFT president we expanded many committees—including the bargaining committee—to include a variety of voices. This included members of all the union’s caucuses. The rumors meant something else to me than your sources suggest—it meant just like teachers must do with their students, I had to earn the trust of my members. Trust is earned. And I try to earn it every day by finding ways to listen to our members and the communities they and we serve. That’s why I am in schools and other worksites in which our members toil, throughout America, every week as I used to be in schools in NYC when I was UFT president three times a week. That’s why I answer many emails and other correspondence personally—as I have here—a practice I started while I was UFT president. And that’s why I show up personally whenever I can to fight the fight against austerity, privatization and deprofessionalization and to reclaim the promise of public education.

Finally, the allegation against Leo Casey is grossly inaccurate. Leo is an extraordinary teacher and union activist—and also a doctor of political philosophy. I am proud to call him a mentor and colleague and friend. Others saw his brilliance and compassion and talents, which is why he was asked by John Soldini, then the UFT vice president of high schools, to work for him in a part-time capacity. Leo never wanted to stop teaching, and I had to beg him to work for the union full time. I am honored that I could convince him to take the helm of the Albert Shanker Institute, where he is doing an exceptional job—as your fellow bloggers who follow the Shanker blog can attest.

I’ve always been open and honest about my life’s work. I am honored each and every day to serve the members of our union who work every day to make a difference in the lives of children and others. To reclaim the promise of education and to ensure that children not only dream their dreams but achieve them. That is our calling and our mission. And that is the work that the AFT will continue to pursue.

In common cause,

Randi

 

 

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Comments

  1. Michael Fiorillo says:

    Thank you for your efforts, Mercedes. Now you and others can see what we had to deal with here in NYC during the Weingarten years: diversion, distraction, misdirection and sell-outs to those intent on destroying public education and teaching as a career.

    Despite Weingarten’s verbiage intended to misdirect people’s attention, the fact remains: she was a full-time teacher for only six months, and is no more an educator than the TFA temps she has enabled as AFT President.

  2. Ironic that Weingarten claims credit for a share my lesson plan campaign in Chicago while buddying up to Eli Broad who has done as much damage to Chicago Public Schools as anyone. Her belief that The Gates Foundation is now more sensitive to the plight of educators because she took over 10 million from them is almost as bizarre and extra terrestrial as John King declaring the nationwide consensus he’s observed about the CCSS. These people simply don’t listen and are so far gone the only solution is to remove them from office.

  3. Thank you for getting Randi Weingarten to give some sort of answer to the educator opponents of Common Core. It should be noted that in her column in the HuffPost and The New York Times she makes no mention of the massive opposition to Common Core by educators and progressives. Instead she attributes the opposition to reactionary Tea Party groups. Her response to you shows she is very aware of the opposition to Common Core among educators. That she does not acknowledge this in The New York Times shows, in my opinion, that she is just engaging in spin and cannot be trusted.

    • The neo liberals love to cloud the waters of reality with their claim that anyone who calls them out must be a Teabagger or a Birther or a KKK member. They know they have sold out the true lefties and a bunch of the middle too and they have no answer for their betrayal so they try to pin all of the dissent on right wing extremists. Watch the so called progressive emails you get in your spam file they all use the same formula. The neo liberals are running out of places to hide and the far right is their last great bogey man.

      • Everyday Educator says:

        Mercedes,

        It’s curious to me that we are questioning the credentials of our leaders from within during a time when the right wing has moved to turn the educational system into a corporation where Chancellors, Superintendents and teachers need not have any educational experience at all. We are fortunate enough to have a president who understood and directed collective bargaining, could litigate a case in court against those who seek to destroy public education, and had the practical experience of being in a classroom. It’s one thing to engage in educational theory, it’s something entirely different to understand its practice. Those who question her service, who are on the side of protecting the rights of the workers, and improving public schools for all children should redirect their energy to those who seek to destroy us.

        At the core, we all believe that our children should and deserve to have common standards in the classroom. Very few will deny that those standards need to be consistent regardless of your geographic location in a state or across the country. The problem before us is that some of those standards are not developmentally appropriate and that needs to be fixed. We don’t have the curriculum in place to help us meet those standards and it’s shameful. Nor do we have the professional development necessary to to help us in our practice. It is imperative that we take the time to align the standards to the curriculum and the training so that we can give students what they need to be sucessful. That is why the AFT has called for a moritorium on the Common Core Standards so that these problems can be fixed. We cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater. Frankly, I don’t care what title you give it. If these things are in place, we can suceed and our children can as well. The educators with whom I’ve spoken feel the same way.

        To take a survey or present a resolution on what we are opposed to and not give an option of what we stand for is worse than giving a false choice. It is not giving them a choice at all. You must ask the next question if you expect any of my colleagues to engage you in serious dialogue. You’re way off base on this one. Our leadership MUST be solution driven.

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