Teachers union rolls out new vision for Americas schools

Three women elected to lead 1.4-million-member union

CHICAGO — “Can you imagine a federal law that promoted community schools — schools that serve the neediest children by bringing together under one roof all the services and activities they and their families need?

“Imagine schools that are open all day and offer afterschool and evening recreational activities and homework assistance. High schools that allow students to sign up for morning, afternoon or evening classes.

“And suppose the schools included child care and dental, medical and counseling clinics, English language instruction open to all community residents, GED programs and even legal assistance.”

With these words Randi Weingarten brought thousands of teachers to their feet in sustained applause, cheering for her union’s bold new vision of the public school of the 21st century. She did it just moments after the votes of 3,000 delegates at the American Federation of Teachers convention here were counted July 14 and it was announced that she was the union’s newly elected president.

Weingarten is currently president of New York’s United Federation of Teachers, the AFT’s largest local.

Along with Weingarten the convention elected two other women to fill the top three jobs at the AFT which, with 1.4 million members, is one of the largest and fastest growing unions in the AFL-CIO. It is now the only U.S. union whose three top officials are women.

Antonia Cortese, currently the union’s executive vice president, was elected secretary-treasurer. Loretta Johnson, who is AFT vice president, head of the Maryland AFT and president of the Baltimore Teachers’ Union’s paraprofessional chapter, was named executive vice president.

Weingarten told reporters after the convention that she and her two top officers were on their way to Washington, where they would begin meeting with people on Capitol Hill to start laying out the union’s vision as the basis for a new education law.

She said the task of developing a new education law is number one on the nation’s education agenda and goes well beyond simply scrapping the No Child Left Behind law currently in place. She left no doubt, however, that the union intends to fight NCLB, which is strongly backed by the Bush administration.

“We need to prepare our students for 21st century jobs,” she said. “Employers are looking for workers who can devise new solutions. But how will kids who have spent 12 years learning to keep their pencil marks inside the bubbles ever be able to think outside the box?”

“NCLB slams the schoolhouse door on much of what makes up modern civilization and replaces it with multiple choice questions,” she added.

Weingerten said NCLB is particularly disastrous for non-college-bound students. “Its test-driven curricula has meant a neglect of the technical and higher-order thinking skills that could prepare these students for jobs in the knowledge economy too.”

Recognizing that funding is crucial to any massive overhaul of the nation’s education system, the union added its voice again to the growing chorus in the labor movement calling for an end to the war in Iraq.

The delegates approved what is perhaps one of the strongest resolutions against the war by any U.S. union. It described the “war on terror” as an “ideological construct that obscures the real reasons for the war — control over wealth and resources.”

“The Bush administration,” the AFT resolution declared, “has used the idea of a ‘war on terror’ to justify permanent and preemptive war and to provide political cover for attacking and occupying Iraq and possibly launching future attacks against Iran.”

The resolution also noted that the “war on terror provides the Bush administration with the political cover to massively increase U.S. investment in war and disinvest in education, health care, environmental safety and other human needs, while at the same time transferring billions of dollars from public treasuries to private corporations for unprecedented war profiteering.”

The delegates voted July 13 to endorse Barack Obama for president. The union had backed Hillary Clinton in the primaries.

Obama addressed the delegates by live satellite feed. His remarks were followed by a rousing ovation.

Weingarten said the choice in the 2008 elections is clear. “Barack Obama says we need to overhaul American education. John McCain has said he wants more of the same. Obama wants to invest in our public schools. McCain supports private school vouchers. Obama wants to invest in health insurance for all, including every child. McCain voted against extending health benefits to children and wants to tax workers who still have employer-paid health care benefits.

“Sen. Obama will make history,” she declared, “not only because of who he is but because of where he will lead America.”

jwojcik @pww.org