ORLANDO, Fla. - Just minutes before Vice President Joseph Biden addressed the nation's labor leaders here at a meeting of the AFL-CIO's executive council yesterday, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, criticized the Obama administration for its support of last week's mass teacher firings in Rhode Island. The school board in Central Falls, R.I. fired all of the city high school's teachers, claiming it was the only way to improve performance there.
In a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Obama backed the school board's move as an "accountability" measure.
Weingarten said in response, "President Obama's comments today condoning the firing do not reflect reality on the ground and completely ignore the contribution teachers there made to transforming the school." she said. "It may be tempting for people in Washington to score political points by scapegoating teachers but it does nothing to give our students and teachers the things they need to succeed."
Earlier yesterday, the AFT, the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals and the Central Falls Teachers Union, a local of the Rhode Island federation, issued a joint statement critical of the administration's position. Biden, in his remarks to union leaders here, acknowledged the disagreement when he said, "Randi, I know you are angry with us about this," and "tactical differences will come up now and then between people who usually agree."
Weingarten said the firings came in spite of state reports that found recent improvements in reading and writing proficiency and other areas at Central Falls High.
"Students deserve the best," she said, "and the fact is they haven't gotten it. It is incumbent to turn this around not by mass firings but by focusing together on programs that work and by giving both students and teachers the tools they need to succeed."
The Coalition of Labor Union Women and others are helping promote a petition of support for the Central Falls teachers. Some are urging union resolutions from across the labor movement and phone calls to the White House and members of Congress opposing the mass firing and calling for mediation.
Photo: Central Falls, R.I., Teachers Union President Jane Sessums speaks at a rally of 1,000 supporting the high school teachers, Feb. 23 in Jenks Park, Central Falls. (PW/Susan Webb)