AFTs Weingarten puts everything but vouchers on the table

WASHINGTON (PAI)--In her first major policy address since being elected President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten put “everything but vouchers” on the bargaining table--including merit pay and tenure--as long as the results help students and teachers.

In a Nov. 17 speech in Washington, Weingarten, elected this summer to head the 1.4-million-member union, also said the union wants to rewrite federal education laws to get away from the “teach to the test” mentality of anti-worker anti-public school GOP President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind act, which she scornfully slammed.

That law, she said, “has become a stand-in for real discussions…about a robust education policy that prepares our children for the 21st century.” Its rewrite, however, should still emphasize accountability for classroom performance, a longtime AFT goal.

Weingarten, head of AFT’s largest local, the United Federation of Teachers of New York City, succeeded Ed McElroy in the union’s top job last summer. She helped push AFT into campaigning for successful Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama after the AFT at first endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) for the White House.

Like AFT, Obama is dubious about Bush’s education law. But he had also made clear during the campaign that he supported some ideas AFT previously opposed, such as greater use of merit pay. The union and its members have seen merit pay misused by principals and administrators as a form of favoritism, without objective standards.

But Weingarten said she’s for it, both to reward those teachers who take on the toughest tasks or who mentor their colleagues to improve, and as long as it supplements general raises for all teachers to recognize their hard work and valuable role in teaching the nation’s kids--and as long as it’s based on objective criteria.

Weingarten used her speech to say that AFT is willing to come to the table and discuss everything except vouchers, which rob public schools of needed tax dollars by funneling them to parents of private-school--usually religious school--students. She challenged other groups involved in education to come to the table, too, with open minds and the same goal of improving public education for all kids.

Whether some of the others in the education debate, notably the Radical Right which has held sway over education policy during the Bush regime, will come with open minds is another matter. Vouchers are their favorite cause, to use tax dollars to impose their religious views on students, while at the same time yanking money from public schools, especially from schools--usually in cities--that teach the most poor kids and need the most aid. And the Right advocates using merit pay and abolishing tenure as a way to strip teachers of protection and force them to teach what ideologues prefer.

Weingarten had a warning for the Right: Attack teachers’ unions and you attack teachers--and kids. And AFT will fight back against that, she said. But that didn’t stop her from laying out principles to guide the coming education debate, especially since Bush’s law expired and Congress must write new federal legislation to aid local schools.

The first, which she said Obama agrees with, is universal pre-school, a longtime AFT cause. “Educational research shows most brain development takes place before age 6, and economic research shows investment in high-quality early childhood education reaps returns many times over,” she said. After just one year of virtually universal pre-K education in Oklahoma, she noted, test scores of kids are up by 16%.

Some of AFT’s other principles include “rigorous career training” of high-school graduates for “green jobs” and other jobs of the future, help for “high-achieving students from low-income households” to take the most-challenging courses, and then to attend college, and expansion of “high-quality choices within school systems.”

She noted that UFT and the New York City school system developed two union-run charter schools in New York and that Chicago’s Hamline K-8 school has a comprehensive improvement program for all of its students, jointly designed by the teachers and the administration. UFT and New York also have merit pay in their pact.

“And we need physical environments where teachers can teach and children can learn. The Department of Education found condition of 43% of the nation’s school build-ings ‘interferes with the delivery of instruction,’” she said. Weingarten did not say how much that would cost, in repairs or modernization. Other figures start at $250 million.

“Rebuilding and rewiring our schools are important ways to boost the economy and put people to work” in a time of rising unemployment, as well as ways to help kids, she said.

“President-elect Obama understands this,” Weingarten noted. “During the campaign…he said repeatedly education reform must be done with teachers, not to teachers (her emphasis).”

But Weingarten warned the present economic tailspin is pushing schools in the other direction. While campaigning for Obama, she said teachers told her of falling state aid, declining local school district tax revenues, and scores of teacher and program cuts. “No cutbacks are as harmful as cutting back on our children’s futures,” Weingarten said.