Dear Randi

Dear Randi Weingarten,

You do not know me, but we have crossed paths on Twitter and education blogging circles.  In fact, I think you have kindly retweeted some of my writings to your followers on a few occasions.  I am writing because I have been following your political actions for some time in this election cycle, and while I think I understand what is motivating a great deal, I am concerned that as the leader of the American Federation of Teachers’ 1.6 million members you have been too willing to accept a “seat at the table” with politicians and foundations, a seat that has come at the expense of the rank and file.  I do not believe this has been your intention, but I also think that it is necessary to question whether or not politics as usual has broken down, whether or not having a seat at the table is worth the comprises necessary to get there. I respectfully suggest that this is one of those times.

Many of the bloggers and education activists I read have been very harsh towards you in their assessments.  Those assessments are based upon what they see as a long series of actions demonstrating a willingness to play ball with so-called reformers and to negotiate for changes in matters like teacher assessment and compensation and the Common Core State Standards.  Mercedes Schneider pulls few punches in this piece detailing cooperation with Eli Broad, the Gates Foundation, and other forces in education reform who have sought to weaken unions, pushed for unregulated charter schools, advocated evaluating teachers using standardized test scores based on the CCSS, and advocated to institute performance pay using those same measures. Blogger Jersey Jazzman wrote you an open letter in 2012 about the Newark contract, making predictions that have pretty much come true.  I know other bloggers and activists who’ve openly pondered nefarious reasons for your willingness to cooperate with people and institutions that have been demonstrably disruptive forces in ways that have rarely been beneficial for schools.

I’d like to make it clear that I do not share that negative assessment.

There are two polar opposed views of how unions ought to deal with efforts like the current reform movements.  The first, which is certainly familiar to many, is best described as following the maxim that if “you let the camel’s nose under the tent, the rest of the body will follow.”  In this view, any concession given to reformers means that a constant wave of detrimental ideas will follow, so union leaders should fight tooth and nail to keep them from happening.  It probably will not work 100%, and the public relations will be difficult to manage, but if reformers keep getting bloody noses, fewer of their ideas will come to fruition.  The other perspective, perhaps more popular in the post-World War II period, believes that having a “seat at the table” is important and more valuable in the long term than constant brawling.  In this view, trade offs have to be made so that policy can be guided into less harmful directions because policy makers only listen to insiders and policy will be made with or without your input.  The stance is less viscerally satisfying, but if the seat at the table is genuine, there is potential to have actual impact without subjecting rank and file and their students to constant turmoil.

I will admit that I see the wisdom of the less confrontational stance.  Policy will be made, and we live in an era when union power has been greatly diminished by loss of membership and political figures willing to attack unions.  If the union leadership is fully shut out of the inside of the political process, then the people who will be left will be lobbyists representing corporate interests and a growing cadre of the super wealthy who have discovered that they enjoy bending politicians to their will far more than they enjoy endowing hospitals and art museums.  In the absence of union leadership with any insider capacity, politicians and plutocrats will bend everything to their will without a voice representing the rank and file even within earshot.  This is not a position of purity, but it promises to keep balance.

There’s just one problem with this perspective.  It only is operable when the place offered at the table is genuine.  If the owners of the table only plan to shoot you underneath it, then preserving your seat can no longer be a viable priority. I respectfully suggest that today is such a time, and that the only move that truly serves your members is to walk away from the table that is populated by people acting in bad faith.

The first evidence of this is the absurd and personal campaign against you by Richard Berman.  As you know, Berman is a political consultant whose preferred tactics are so bottom feeding and vicious that an oil industry executive listening to him talk felt the need to expose him for type of operative that he is.  Berman has spent most of the past year coordinating a direct assault on teacher unions generally and you specifically, relying on hyperbolic tone, misleading information, and a staggeringly personal content.  I must note that you have been dignified, forceful, and inspiring in the responses I have seen to Berman’s attacks, but I also must note that there is a lesson in the mere existence of his campaign.

Berman works for corporate interests, and although he will not disclose his donors, it is not hard to guess the kinds of people behind him.  After your cooperation with Eli Broad on some issues and after your personal efforts to support the standards side of the Common Core, it would be atrocious for his funding to be coming from Broad or Gates, but there is no lack of other corporate interests from the Walton Family Foundation to the Koch Brothers to the Rupert Murdoch to Michelle Rhee’s Students First who would be more than happy to take up the cause.  And why would any of these people and foundations be eager to engage in such a puerile attack on you?  Well, you’ve stepped out of line.  You’ve warned reformers that their obsession with testing and evaluating teachers by tests have put the Common Core State Standards in trouble with teachers and parents.  To me, this was overdue because Race to the Top had super glued testing the standards from the get go, but for your supposed friends in reform, this kind of talk about the obvious is a betrayal.  Worse from their perspective?  You have defended teachers and their union won workplace protections from the lawsuits seeking to strip them from all of our nation’s teachers, and you have been willing to criticize supporters of the suits in public.

I’ve heard and read your defenses of tenure.  They have been eloquent.  They have been factual.  They have been passionate.  And they must be unforgivable to the types of people who hire the likes of Berman. It is fairly obvious that he was hired to “soften you up” prior to the Vergara lawsuit ramping up, and he has been charged with keeping up his attacks as you’ve defended teachers since then.  What’s the lesson here?  You are only favored by corporate reformers and their political allies as long as you stay entirely within the ranks.  Take a step out of line, and well, you are on billboards as the enemy of America’s children and subject to junior high pranking on social media.

More egregious, however, has been the steady stream of betrayals of teachers and schools by politicians who have been wooed by steady infusions of corporate cash and have participated in starving public schools of funds, forcing the CCSS, testing and test based evaluations into schools, and who have promoted charter school policies that concentrate high levels of disadvantaged students into the same district schools they have starved of funds.  Worse, these betrayals have come from Democratic politicians who have traditionally enjoyed strong labor support, and who, in public, claim to be allies of school and labor.  Republican Governors like Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin have been incredibly hostile towards teachers and their unions, but they have also been forthright about their oppositional stance.  Meanwhile governors like New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Connecticut’s Dannel Malloy and mayors like Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, Newark’s Cory Booker (now U.S. Senator from New Jersey), and Kevin Johnson of Sacramento have pursued public school policies harmful to teachers and students — even if some of them go through the motions of courting traditionally Democratic Party constituencies.

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has perhaps been the worst.  Governor Cuomo has continued to use the Gap Elimination Adjustment to balance his budget on the back of our schools.  Districts cannot make up the difference in lost school aid with local funds due to his property tax cap.  Governor Cuomo plays favorites with charter school operations that further disadvantage local schools and then attacks those local schools and teachers for poor test performance. Governor Cuomo’s education commissioner went out of his way to set the cut scores on state exams so that only 30% of students would be rated as proficient.  His record has been so damaging that the UFT took the extraordinary step of not making an endorsement in the 2014 gubernatorial election, and while many rank and file members would have preferred a stronger stance to endorse an opponent, it was an important step to publicly acknowledge that teachers in New York have no friend in the Governor’s Mansion.

It is because of these reasons that myself, and many others, were sorely disappointed by your tepid public response to Governor Cuomo’s latest outrage that he sees our system of free common schooling as a “public monopoly” that he wants to “break” and that he believes our state’s hard working teachers do not want to be evaluated.  He signaled not only his plans to double down on the destructive path of privatizing and testing, but also his utter disregard for teachers and the public purposes of education itself.  In response, you told reporters that his statements were most likely “campaign rhetoric” and that you had sent him a private letter explaining his errors.  To call the governor’s statements “campaign rhetoric” is to suggest that he is not entirely sincere in those statements and has tailored them for a political purpose, but I have to ask what in this man’s record suggests that he does not fully believe everything he has said?

Your statement reminded me of segment on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show on October 31st.  On it, Working Families Party co-chair Karen Scharff and actress and activist Cynthia Nixon made the case for people to vote on the W.F.P. line even as the Governor had appeared in the hour before them, implicitly insulting the Working Families Party in favor of his newly created Women’s Equality Party line on the ballot:

“We’ve formed every kind of fringe party for every kind of reason,” the governor said. “We have Democrat, Republican, Green, red, white, blue, working people, working short people, working tall people. We’ve never had a women’s party.”

Many observers believe that the Governor created the W.E.P. line for no other reason than to siphon off votes from the progressive W.F.P. and possibly lead them to lose their ballot line in the future, and they believe he did this because the party made him fight for his spot on their line.  Karen Scharff and Cynthia Nixon made the case that if people voted on the W.F.P. line, they would remain a force in state politics and keep pressure on Governor Cuomo to be the “better Cuomo that we know is lurking inside…”

The thing is that I do not “know” that there is a “better Cuomo,” and I do not believe that anyone can make such a Cuomo show up.  When he has stood for traditional Democratic Party issues they have been issues that carry almost no political risk in this state: gun control, abortion rights, and marriage equality.  While those are significant, it is very clear that when it comes to fiscal policy and our public education system, he is taking his cues entirely from the corporate financiers of his campaigns. When a sitting governor takes 100s of 1000s of dollars from the backers of a single charter school chain, then manipulates circumstances to humiliate a mayor seeking funding and support for universal pre-K, and then enshrines forcing New York City to pay the rent for those schools right into the state budget — then we know full well that he has no intention of playing fair with our schools, our teachers, and our children.

I have seen you on Twitter stating that elections are “about choices,” and perhaps you believe that the Republican opponents to these Democratic Party privatizers are even worse.  You might be right — in the short term.  In the long term, however, it will be even worse if the Democratic Party continues its head first slide down the path of mass standardized testing, invalid teacher evaluations, mass teacher firing and school closings, selling off our educational commons to charter school corporations, and the breaking of one of the last unionized middle class professions in the country.  A Republican candidate may be hostile to teacher unions as well, and may deny teachers and their representatives a seat at the reform table, but I have to ask how is that any worse than being invited to that table only to be betrayed again and again?

Elections are, indeed, about choices, and perhaps 2014 and forward is the time to choose better candidates and to actively oppose those who are eager to sell off our educational commons no matter their party and no matter how they will respond if they make into office over our opposition.  The vote is one of the remaining democratic mechanisms that can still work in an age of dark money elections and politics.  Influential billionaires may own politicians’ ears in between elections, but those same politicians have to get past the voters, and we need strong voices to roundly condemn those who have betrayed public education to forces that seek to profit from it instead of nurturing it for the benefit of all.

When the seat at the table is a farce, we still have the ballot box and the picket line.  I urge you to consider what roles they have in the years ahead.


Daniel S. Katz, Ph.D.

Public School Graduate

Lifetime Educator

Father of Two Public School Children

Addendum: After I published this piece, Randi Weingarten, after a day of travel, posted this piece on the AFT web page about the “difficult choices” facing New York voters.  The statement insinuates that Ms. Weingarten will not be voting for sitting Governor Andrew Cuomo, and while she describes the problems with the Republican challenger Rob Astorino, she is very firm with the Democrat:

It’s heartbreaking to see what’s happening in New York, especially after campaigning across the country for gubernatorial candidates who unequivocally support public education, respect teachers and will fight for the investment our schools need.

But in New York, the decision is painful. I am deeply disappointed and appalled by Gov. Cuomo’s recent statement that public education is a “monopoly” that needs to be busted up. (Frankly, it’s only hedge fund millionaires, right-wing privatizers and tea partiers who would use that terminology.) Public education is a public good and an anchor of democracy that is enshrined in our state constitution. Public education needs to be nurtured and reclaimed.

Ms. Weingarten concludes her statement by saying, “It’s well past time to fund our schools, care for our children, support our teachers, and stand up for workers and working families everywhere in our state.”

I wholeheartedly agree, and I sincerely hope that this signals a willingness to challenge Mr. Cuomo much more vigorously.


Filed under Activism, charter schools, Cory Booker, Gates Foundation, politics, schools, Unions

8 responses to “Dear Randi

  1. Betty

    You are amazing

  2. Ed in the Apple


    Attacking Broad and Gates and the “corporatists” is popular with teachers and union members, does it change policy?

    You may remember the LBJ quip, “Better inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”

    Will unrelenting attacks from unions change the policy inside the tent?

    Buffalo and Philadelphia vigorously opposed every attempt tp “reform” school systems, and the public school systems are on the verge of all charter.

    New York City and New Haen negotiated contracts with a range of positive reforms. The UFT fought the term limited Bloomberg every step of the way, knowing the clock was ticking on his administration. Cuomo will be elected and will be governor for at least four years.

    Unions need approaches that match the situation, there is no “one size fits all.”

    There is lingering disquieting question: primarily white old bloogers sharply critical of policies and parents of color and an increasing number of minority legislators supporting the “corporatist” agenda.

    Unless parents of so-called “failing” schools supoort union approaches this battle will no be winnable.

    Peter Goodman

    • Peter,

      I do not disagree for the most part, and your final point is very well taken — there is genuine community building that needs to happen….starting with a lot of listening.

      But as I indicate in my piece, while I agree that keeping a seat at the table is usually a reasonable priority, in an increasing number of cases across the country, the seat has become a sham. Union leaders are invited “inside” and then quite frankly betrayed. In cases like Andrew Cuomo, I believe that the time has come to stop valuing keeping a seat at a table when it is almost entirely just for show.

      The UFT in NYC is an interesting case in point. As Randi Weingarten has pointed out, the UFT renegotiated its own workplace protections so that the length of time needed to adjudicate a tenured teacher who has been found incompetent was cut enormously — but here comes David Welch and Campbell Brown, citing outdated “facts” on how long it takes and using the courts to overturn what was negotiated in good faith. The union worked for reform, got it, and is “repaid” by this.

      I don’t rule out working with the inside. But not this inside. Not at this time.

  3. Dainel, you should read this before merely classing me as among those who are only “confrontational” with Weingarten:

    She does not care to “listen.” Period.

  4. Dear Professor Katz:

    Thank you for writing. I hope you don’t mind that I needed to finish the election cycle and thank our activists before turning my attention to your open letter. In addition to your letter, I also responded to one from Peter Cunningham, who wrote from the completely opposite vantage point. I’ve included that response as well.

    You raised many legitimate issues in your letter about how to move forward given the climate, and how to do so in a way that builds trust and engagement with every rank and file member so everyone sees the union as their union. And I really appreciated the tone. Let me address the most important substantive question.

    Given the many different challenges that teachers and public educators face today, we need a smart, tough strategy that includes fighting fiercely, when necessary, to defend our students, our schools and our profession from attack. It’s a strategy that also includes working collaboratively with willing partners, whenever such opportunities present themselves.

    Our mission statement reads: “The AFT is a union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and our communities. We are committed to advancing these principles through community engagement, organizing, collective bargaining and political activism, and especially through the work our members do.”

    To advance this mission—which is the soul of the union—we have to use every single tactic and strategy available. That means at the ballot box, the bargaining table, the town square and the picket line, and it also entails the building of community and school partnerships, devising solutions and taking the risk to try things–provided they are good for kids and fair to educators. We must always work as a democratic institution that builds the trust, the agency and the activism of our members. That’s what we mean when we say solution driven, member mobilized and community engaged.

    When we have the responsibility of being the bargaining agent, we can’t walk away from the table. It is at the table where we have a legal voice—a voice that many governors, like Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin or soon-to-be former Gov. Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, have rushed to obliterate.

    More important, if we want to make a difference in the lives of our students, our communities and the wonderful people we represent, we need to be able to both fight back and find common ground. It can’t be either/or. We can’t take only one of these approaches. Which approach depends upon what will best serve our students, our schools, our profession and our communities. And while those decisions on which tools to employ and which strategies to adopt will vary under the circumstances, our values must always be firmly held. It is about keeping “our eyes on the prize.”

    I hear your frustration, and I agree with it. We have a tough environment, made tougher frankly by the outcome of Tuesday’s election. An election, by the way, where education was not the front-burner issue. And where it was, as in Pennsylvania and California, we prevailed.

    Our job is not simply to analyze the environment, but to change it. Like Frederick Douglass, I believe that “power concedes nothing without a demand.” If we are going to end the destructive policies of austerity, the privatization of schools and the deprofessionalization of teaching, we must be ready to mobilize our members and to fight hard. If we are going to take on the inequities of race and class that so damage American education, and the underfunding that so harms our schools and communities, we must be prepared for real struggle.

    That puts us squarely in the crosshairs of some of the most powerful and wealthy in this country and the world–The Waltons of Wal-Mart, the Koch brothers, the Eli Broads, the Scott Walkers, the Rick Scotts, and Rick Bermans; some on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley. People who want to obliterate unions, decimate our profession and eliminate public education. People who will use any tactic, including creating and funding trolls to destabilize our organizations to do so.

    It can be a long and often difficult struggle when you take on those with great power, and you will lose some battles, as we did Tuesday night. We are never the only political actors, and there are times when the larger political currents are too strong for us to overcome. When labor was one third of the workforce we were community, but now with that number less than 10 percent, we must be very intentional about building back community density. That’s why we look to broader community coalitions in our fights. But we don’t fight because it is the easy thing to do; we fight because it is the right thing to do. We became teachers because we care deeply about the students we teach and the communities we serve, and we will do whatever we must to defend them.

    Yet we can’t just fight back; we need to fight forward. We must fight for fair and adequate funding for schools, while opposing “test and punish” accountability, with its out-of-control testing and its mass closure of schools. But even when the public is with us, and they are, we won’t win these fights if we aren’t also advocating for an alternate way of approaching accountability focused on fixing and improving schools. The fight-forward agenda finds ways to improve our schools by strengthening instruction; by attracting, retaining and supporting teachers, especially in hard-to-staff schools; and by overcoming the outside factors such as poverty that comprise two thirds of the achievement gap and take such a toll on our students and our schools. And as important as social media has become, battles are won when people are engaged collectively and when we act in coalition with others.

    Should teachers and unions insist on a seat at the table? If we don’t want our students, our schools and our profession to be on the menu, we had better do so. Isn’t that what collective bargaining is about—a real seat at the table? That’s why teachers have shed blood, sweat and tears for collective bargaining rights. That’s why the first maneuver in the right-wing playbook is to get rid of collective bargaining, as we saw in Indiana and Wisconsin. Ask a teacher in Texas, where collective bargaining is prohibited by law, if they want the voice that comes with collective bargaining, if they want a seat at the table. Or the teacher in Wisconsin who told me they lost everything after Walker destroyed collective bargaining.

    There is a reason the corporate and right-wing forces of this country have waged a frontal assault on unions for the last 30 years. And there is a reason part of their agenda always includes pitting parents, students and communities against us.

    Collective bargaining gives us something else–it is a tool that gives educators power to help solve problems facing our schools. Teachers in New Haven, Conn., in Lawrence, Mass., and in the ABC school district in California know how to fight as well as any place in the country, and they have done so whenever it was necessary. But they keep their “eyes on the prize”—making schools better for students and teachers. They have used collective bargaining to make the union into a driving force for improving public schools. Teachers in those districts now feel respected and supported. Student achievement is on the rise. There is growing community confidence in the public schools.

    The most important tools for improving our schools—such as the development of community schools with wraparound services to address the conditions of poverty—can’t be implemented by teachers alone. To be successful, we need partners—partners in the community, partners in the leadership of school districts, and partners among elected officials. There are times when school and district leadership or elected officials simply refuse to work with us or seek to silence us…. and that action demands an equally draconian reaction.

    But there are many circumstances where the opposite is true. Where people may disagree with us initially but where we need to try to find common ground and real partners, because without them, we won’t be able to implement the changes our schools, our students and our profession need.

    At our convention, I laid out a multipronged strategy for our union to accomplish all this work—by being solution-driven, engaging the community, being member-mobilized and, yes, being badass too. It’s an approach that has yielded results in cities like New York City, New Haven, and St. Paul, Minn., and in states like California and Pennsylvania. Is any one strategy enough? Of course not. Can it always be improved? Of course. I would love for us, and for others, to have a real conversation about all of this. Hopefully even when we don’t agree, as you know is the case with at least one of the bloggers you mentioned, the false and misleading assertions that are tools of those who wish to destroy us can be off the table.

    We must, even if we disagree about tactics and strategies, join together in the fight to ensure that students’ needs are met, that their aspirations are cultivated, and that educator voices are not simply heard but deeply respected. That will be how we reclaim the promise both of public education and of America.

    In unity,

    Randi Weingarten

    My response to Peter Cunningham:

    Peter Cunningham, the executive director of Education Post, suggested in his recent “open letter” to me in the pages of Education Week (SEE XXX) that my focus on collaboration is actually “organized resistance to reform.” With all due respect, Peter, you couldn’t be more wrong.

    Collaboration isn’t a silver bullet. It is an essential tool that builds trust and engenders collective responsibility. And we see sustainable results in districts that embrace collaboration. It’s a vehicle for implementing solutions that help kids succeed, evidenced by what happens when resources are deployed for community schools, early-childhood education, project-based learning, music, art, and multiple pathways for graduation, including career and technical education programs.

    Why is ABC Unified in California successful? In the 1990s, district administrators, school board members, and union officials worked together to improve several struggling schools. The result? Today, these same schools are among the highest-performing in the district, and they continue to perform well.

    Why is Lawrence, Mass., where schools and the economy are struggling, successful? In collaboration with the community and school administrators, we are working to improve schools. In just one year, the average standardized-student-test score in English/language arts has increased by 5 percentage points, to 52—the highest in the district’s history. Even more important is the excitement and engagement from parents and students—something I saw firsthand when I visited the district this fall. That’s collaboration leading directly to student success.

    Countries that embrace collaboration see real results, too. The Teaching and Learning International Survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or oecd , shows that high-performing countries seek highly collaborative school cultures. They treat their national teachers’ unions as professional partners. The most successful nations, as we’ve heard at international summits, don’t understand the deep disrespect teachers endure in the United States.

    Here’s the common ingredient from ABC to Lawrence to Finland: a willing partner. My hometown of New York City highlights why. Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, teachers didn’t have a willing partner on the other side of the table. After all, it was Schools Chancellor Joel Klein who was doing Mayor Bloomberg’s bidding. The Bloomberg administration rarely negotiated to negotiate with the union, unless it was pushed up against the wall. Collaboration was condemned, not condoned. New Yorkers made it clear in the mayoral election last year that they wanted a new direction for the city’s public schools.

    Within months of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s election, teachers and the district had negotiated a groundbreaking new contract. The agreement offered a real career ladder, provided the flexibility for schools to innovate, increased opportunities for professional learning and parental involvement, and decreased the amount of mind-numbing paperwork. Already, we’re seeing results. More kids have access to early-childhood education. More than 60 schools have been designated Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence, or prose , empowering them to be flexible with everything from schedules to evaluations. And just last week, the mayor announced his “school renewal plan” to turn around almost 100 struggling schools.

    So when some question why collaboration isn’t more widespread, they need only to look at the willingness, or lack thereof, of policymakers and administrators to be real partners.

    In Los Angeles, despite what I believe is his heartfelt goal of helping children and improving public education, former Superintendent John Deasy was not the collaborative partner to get the job done. His tension with the school board and teachers was well known, as was his connections to the Broad and Walton foundations (the same funders, incidentally, that support, in part, Mr. Cunningham’s organization, Education Post). Conversely, on his first day on the job, Ramon Cortines, the recently appointed interim superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified system, talked about the need for “team building” and “people coming together to solve problems.” In short: collaboration.

    Make no mistake, collaboration isn’t the absence of conflict. In districts where collaboration is the norm, teachers and administrators alike will tell you that it’s not easy going. How could it be? With the obstacles facing public education—underfunding, inequity, poverty—particularly at high-needs schools, there should be a robust debate among, and hard work by, all partners. What makes collaboration work in these districts is unbending respect, a willingness to assume the best intentions, and a commitment to coming up with solutions that engage and reflect the views of all key stakeholders—parents, educators, students, and the broader community—not just the business elite.

    People don’t lose confidence as a result of collaboration or because of teachers (who, by all accounts, are the most trusted education players by parents and voters) or even because of the teachers’ unions. Confidence is lost in our schools when parents see their kids coming home deflated and distressed from the amount of high-stakes testing. It’s lost when schools are funded at lower levels than they were before the recession (which is true in at least 30 states), while corporate profits continue to grow. It’s lost when neighborhood schools are closed or converted to charters, rather than fixed. It’s lost when people only see or hear one side punishing the other with no real progress.

    Unfortunately, the recently formed Education Post, its funders, and its allies have continued to advance an agenda that for the last decade has been oversold, has underperformed, and has perpetuated a lack of public confidence. The naysayers proclaim that the sky is falling in America’s schools. And while none of us will be satisfied untill all of our children reach their God-given potential, we know that an uptick in graduation rates and National Assessment of Educational Progress, or naep , scores tell a different story.

    The naysayers stir fear in order to silence teachers and sell off our schools. They’re hell-bent on letting an annual high-stakes English and math test determine the fate of our kids, our teachers, and our schools. They’ve been silent on Gov. Tom Corbett’s devastating education funding cuts in Pennsylvania, on lobbyist Rick Berman’s unconscionable and very hostile attacks on teachers, and on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s mass school closings in Chicago. They’ve praised me only when I’ve agreed with them, and questioned my motives when I’ve challenged them.

    We can reclaim the promise of public education if we invest in strong neighborhood public schools that are safe, collaborative, and welcoming environments for students, parents, educators, and the community at large.

    To accomplish this goal, however, we must fulfill the most basic of needs for our kids: Schools in which teachers and other staff members are well prepared and well supported with manageable class sizes and time to collaborate. Schools with rigorous standards aligned to an engaging curriculum that focuses on teaching, learning, and student instructional needs, rather than testing. Schools that include art, music, civics, and the sciences. Schools with multiple pathways to graduation. Schools with evaluation systems to improve teaching and learning that are not punitive. Schools with wraparound services to address the social, emotional, and health needs of students.

    And we must work with our communities. We must respect, not revile, teachers. We must provide the necessary tools and support. And, yes, we must remove teachers fairly and in a timely way and with due process, if they are unable to do their jobs.

    Collaboration is the vehicle through which we can get this work done. It’s not “overrated,” as Michelle Rhee once noted; an “elixir of the status quo crowd,” in the words of Joel Klein; or, as Mr. Cunningham called it, a disguise for “organized resistance.” Collaboration is not the only thing we need for schools to be successful, but it’s what we need to sustain working solutions. As my students used to say, it’s about “walking the walk,” not just “talking the talk.” In other words, Peter, actions speak louder than words; and collaboration speaks volumes.

    Let’s roll up our sleeves and reclaim the promise of public education for all kids.

    RANDI WEINGARTEN is the president of the American Federation of Teachers.

    • Dear President Weingarten,

      I want to sincerely thank you for taking the time from your immensely busy and important schedule to write such a thoughtful and informative reply. It is perhaps my turn to apologize for taking a while to respond, but I wished to wait until I had sufficient time set aside to give your thoughts and ideas the attention they deserve.

      First, I want to say that I whole-heartedly agree with your points about using all tools at the union’s disposal, and especially about the role of community building in that tool chest. This is a lesson that I have learned at many times in my life, but perhaps none so poignantly as the time I served as one of the founding members of the steering committee that unionized the teaching assistants at Michigan State University. We began as a small group of like-minded graduate assistants in different fields who understood that many advantages from collective bargaining would improve the lives of 1000s of talented people whose labor made the university’s educational mission possible, and we had the long standing example to the unionized graduate students at University of Michigan to inspire us. The Michigan Federation of Teachers helped us by providing a full time organizer, but the work of slowly, almost painstakingly making the case for a union fell to us and the growing number of individual graduate students who joined us. We did this person by person until we had spoken to almost the entire prospective collective bargaining unit and built a community where none had existed before.

      So I understand and appreciate the message about community building, collaboration, and finding common ground. What is most hopeful to me as I survey the political and policy landscape is that despite a three decades long narrative of school failure that has convinced most Americans that nation’s schools are, indeed, failures, public school parents remaining convinced by wide margins that their children’s schools are doing a good job. The people who are most familiar with their community’s teachers are impressed by their hard work and commitment to their students. This applies to our urban school communities as well where surveys by the National School Board Association found that wide margins of parents trusted the teachers at their children’s schools (84%) and believed their children’s teachers respected them (77.2%).

      What politician, political party, or political institution would not long for such trust and respect?

      I also agree with you that the political and policy environment today is not simply challenging; it is absolutely chilling. While claiming to be in it “for the kids,” politicians and billionaires (and their bought and paid for mouthpieces) have taken aim at an aspect of school entirely unrelated to whether or not kids succeed in school – teachers’ union protections. No fact on the ground or real research links teacher unionization to schools that fail their students. Just the opposite – states with the strongest unions tend to have schools that perform the highest on the measures so championed by Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, Eli Broad, the Waltons and so on. Why would they go after tenure first by setting up teachers to fail on test-based measures of their performance and then by suing to eliminate that which was bargained for in good faith? I believe that the billionaires who increasingly have their vision of the workplace and economy enabled in the media and in our state and national capitols see one of the last, large, middle-class, UNIONIZED workforces in the country. And they want to break it. Unions are the last non-corporate forces in the nation that have the resources to oppose their vision of a universally temporary and at will workforce, and they want to see it broken.

      What is at stake is not only the future of teachers and their students. The future of the middle class is at stake as well.

      I also agree with you that the place at the BARGAINING table must be preserved, and I regret if I made it sound as if I thought that the union should simply push away its chair. Obviously, acting in good faith and remaining at the collective bargaining table up until the very last moment possible is in everyone’s best interests. What I intended, however, was questioning when do we recognize the time to walk away from the table of insiders who shape policy? The reason I ask this is because for far too long now we have seen politicians and political parties, historically allied with teachers to improve public education for all, have turned due to the influence of money from Gates, Broad, the Waltons, the Kochs, etc. from that commitment and towards an agenda that weakens fully public education and, thus, betrays the vast majority of American children.

      I am glad to read your vigorous and clear denunciation of governors like Rick Scott of Florida, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, and I share with you the grim satisfaction of knowing that Governor Corbett lost his reelection bid because the people of Pennsylvania no longer tolerated his assault on their schools.
      At the same time, I must say that I find union leadership slow to level similarly justified criticism at Democrats who have plainly sold their education policy making to the billionaires even while they go through the empty motions of listening to educators. Mayor Cory Booker of Newark is now Senator Cory Booker, and he got to the Senate using his mayoralty to sell out the children and teachers of Newark. Governor Chris Christie gets the lion’s share of criticism, but he was aided and abetted, I would say INVITED, to wreak havoc with Newark by His Honor Cory Booker. The result today is a school system in chaos, with families flung across the district in search of schools, Barringer High School overcrowded without textbooks, food, and places for children to sit, rubber rooms of teachers whose only failure is being on the wrong side of a Cami Anderson appointee.

      Senator Booker deserves the same opposition from teachers’ advocates as Scott Walker deserves.

      The UFT made some progress in this direction when it decided to sit out the New York election and not endorse any candidate for governor. I understand not endorsing Governor Cuomo’s Republican opponent, but I joined many others in hoping for far more vigorous opposition to a governor who has assaulted our public schools since day one. Again, I can somewhat understand some reticence to voicing a fully throated opposition to Governor Cuomo. After all, his reelection was considered by most outsiders a sure thing, and if he was going to be the policy setter for the next 4 years, would it have been wise to fully oppose him?


      Not because it would enhance the union’s ability to influence him; it certainly would not. But because he has no desire to be so influenced, and it has been obvious for some time that he sees our public school system as something with which he can balance his budget, turn swaths of it over to billionaire investors, and make it more and more difficult for traditional schools and their students to thrive. He is 100% in the camp of the very same people you say have teachers and their unions in their crosshairs. I applauded your statement just before the election about what a hideous view of our schools he has; I only wish that it had come in the Spring when the Governor’s record was already well known. Now that he returns to the Governor’s Mansion, I hope that the tone of the statement will presage a full defense of the Empire State’s 600,000 teachers and their millions of students.

      There is a chance to send a message this upcoming February with the reelection campaign of Democratic Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. It is my hope that this opportunity will be taken.

      I agree with you that in order to “fight forward” that we need allies, even among politicians. Those with the power to make and enforce policy cannot only hear from the oligarchical forces that are taking over our democracy. However, if their ears are entirely closed to anyone else, it does little good to hope that they will change, and it should not matter if there is an R or a D after their names. I was listening to Bill Moyers discuss election politics and inequality with Senator Bernie Sanders this morning, and Mr. Moyers made an excellent observation – there is a majority across this country that is made up of both liberal and conservative leaning people who are not in favor of our widening inequality. They want the influence of money curbed in our elections and especially in our policy making. They want a degree of populism, a fair shake for the middle class, and relief for the poor, but when it comes time to vote, they are asked to do so tribally and by getting caught up in distracting issues that cover the fact that an increasing number of politicians of both parties are mainly serving their donors over their constituents. We need to break through the constant churn of discussing who in on the right and who is on the left and instead begin to talk about who is bought and paid for.

      That should extend to politicians who want to sell our public education commons with no thought to the real purpose of serving children and serving our democracy.

      There was good news last Tuesday beyond the pro-public schools campaigns you mentioned. It was in Richmond, California, a city of barely 100,000 people. The city is home to a Chevron gasoline refinery complex, one that caught fire a few years back with hard local consequences. The city sued Chevron last year, alleging long standing negligence at the facility, and Chevron decided to do something about it. They planned to essentially buy the city government for the sum of $3 million, and they poured those resources into a municipal election with the intent of installing a servile government.

      And they lost. The people of Richmond, California elected a city council and mayor who intend to continue to protect the people of their city over the interests of Chevron. This means that while we retain the vote, we retain a genuine power, possibly the only one that can speak to our political leaders with the same strength as money speaks. I hope that you and your fellow union leaders will consider more times when it is necessary to wield that power regardless of party affiliation.

      In Solidarity,
      Daniel Katz

  5. Pingback: Exit The King….An Opportunity for Union Leadership? | Daniel Katz, Ph.D.

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