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Back to School With Teachers’ Leader Randi Weingarten

When American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten traveled the country during her annual national back-to-school tour this year, she purposely weighted her itinerary with stops at schools whose parents had overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump.

Bill Raden

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Randi Weingarten. (All Photos by Joanne Kim)

When American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten traveled the country during her annual national back-to-school tour this year, she purposely weighted her itinerary with stops at schools whose parents had overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump. Crossing the red/blue line in places like Binghamton, New York and St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana for the sake of what she calls “movement-building” is hardly novel for the leader of 1.7 million union classroom teachers. Weingarten had famously extended an olive branch to Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos in a soon-aborted attempt at finding common ground with the evangelical prophet of for-profit school privatization.

On her swing through California, Weingarten sat down with Capital & Main to talk about how far public schools have come during 25 years of the education wars, as well as the threats posed by a federal government that has never been more hostile to the principals of communitarian democracy that are the common DNA of public education and its unions. (Disclosure: The AFT is a financial supporter of this website. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


How dare you take a meat ax and eliminate every single summer school program for children, every single after-school program for children, every single feeding program for children and say that they’re not relevant?”

Capital & Main: The Supreme Court in the coming year will likely hear Janus v. AFSCME, a case which is expected to overturn 1977’s Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision and cripple public sector unions’ ability to charge membership fees. To what extent will that ruling impact AFT’s historic advocacy role for the nation’s teachers and public school children?

Randi Weingarten: Look, I take every challenge as a moment of opportunity. I don’t wear rose-colored glasses. The Janus case is about doing what the Guardian said today: defunding and defanging unions so that they cannot do the job that they’re supposed to do, which is to be the people’s advocate. What I’m seeing in the United States is people wanting to fight for a voice and understanding that they can’t do it alone— the kids call it being woke. There’s an appetite to fight, [but] we need to be smart about doing the work. The work is engaging members on issues that are rooted in values and that are relevant to them, and engaging [the] community, and to be solution-driven, and to be focused on how we get to opportunity in America. That means working for the kids that we serve and the members that we represent. Teachers want what the kids need.

How would you rate Betsy DeVos’ performance as Secretary of Education thus far?

Weingarten: I don’t know — do you give somebody an F on morality? We spent the day with her in Van Wert, Ohio. She went into every single meeting saying, “We can find common ground. We can work together to reduce paperwork for special needs kids. We can work on CTE [career and technical education] together.” Do you think she followed up? Not one follow-up on any of the things. That’s reprehensible. Look at her school visits: She’s visiting private schools. She is basically wearing her ideology on her sleeve. That’s fine as an advocate, not when you take an oath of office.

Back-to-school is usually a time of celebration, a time of great possibilities for parents, teachers and kids. This week, in every place I’ve gone to, they are worried to death.”

How dare you take a meat ax and eliminate every single summer school program for children, every single after-school program for children, every single feeding program for children and say that they’re not relevant? How dare you do that! How dare you say that HBCU’s [historically black colleges and universities] are pioneers of choice when the reason that they were founded was because people were discriminated against and didn’t have a choice? How dare you put somebody in as the head of your civil rights division who thinks that women on campuses may get raped because people were drunk, and you don’t do anything about that? How dare you side with the lenders instead of students who borrow money to go to college? You side with those who have histories of usury and predatory practices. There’s never been someone like this in that role.

 

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What would you say is the biggest threat, then, facing public schools today?

Weingarten: The franchise to vote and the franchise of public education are at risk right now. Every single state constitution has something embedded in it about how there’s a responsibility for the education of its students. Whether it’s to prepare them for citizenship, whether it’s to create opportunities for them and their families, whether it’s to create knowledge and skills. It’s not a fight over curriculum anymore, as important as that is. It’s not a  fight over testing anymore, as important as that is. It is the fight over whether we will provide kids in America with a public education that is diverse, that is integrated and non-discriminatory, that helps them become whoever they want to be and provides them the resources to achieve their potential.

Many people with memories of public schools from a generation or more ago might be really surprised by what they find when they walk into a classroom today. What are some of those changes that you are most proud of?

Weingarten: Public schools are safer and they are attempting to do all the things that kids are expected to know and be able to do in a way that they never did before. The values of ensuring that every single child is safe and secure, that every single child is valued and respected … are embedded in basically every single public school in America. That’s a big difference from before. Test scores are up, graduation rates are up. People try to do everything they can in terms of using data to improve instruction, and fighting for the things that they know kids need, like services for children — mental health services, after-school services, curriculum that is broad and deep and that focuses on the whole child, project-based learning. I think you see this kind of sense of building relationships and a resiliency as well as a commitment to equity. … [And] those places where you’ve had union density, where you have collective bargaining, where teachers actually are empowered to use their voice — those are places where you see more funding, you see better graduation rates, you see more successful outcomes, you see more services for kids.

 

You’ve mentioned the need to call out the privatizers on pretending that they cared more about kids than about dismantling public education — that we are in a which-side-are-you-on moment. How do mainstream liberal Democrats that support charter schools differ from Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos’ brand of school choice?

Weingarten: Even though I would like Democrats to be much more bold on these issues, because I think that this is foundational to democracy, and it requires investment, I do think that there is a big difference between even a Barrack Obama and an [former Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan, and a Betsy DeVos [and a Donald Trump]. Which is the [latter] do not believe in public service. If you look at Detroit, Michigan, if you look at Florida — places that DeVos has worked in — they have actively destabilized and defunded public education. If you really believe in choice, you wouldn’t be cutting the budget or destabilizing or defunding public education. You would be helping to create public school as a viable choice. And I think that the California Charter Schools Association is very similar to DeVos in that manner. They see it as a zero sum game, and that’s not real choice.

The franchise to vote and the franchise of public education are at risk right now.”

During the presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton made free college part of the national conversation. Do you think it’s time that the country guaranteed access to free, quality higher education for all of its high school graduates?

Weingarten: Well, I think just like when a high school diploma became essential, we made [high school] free for all students by making it part of public education. So the answer is yes, I think that kids that want to go to college should have that same opportunity to go without unsustainable debt. … But I also think we have to deal with issues like sustainability. We have to deal with issues like making sure that community colleges and state universities don’t have the kind of austerity we have right now, where there are limitations in, you know, the number of classes that kids can take, or where you don’t have the kind of robustness and maintenance of effort in the faculty or the course offerings. And I also think we have to do something to make sure that career tech ed and apprenticeships as a pathway are [included] too.

You’ve been traveling around California and the rest of the country as part of your annual back-to-school tour. What would you say has been your most surprising takeaway this year?

Weingarten: There’s a lot of anxiety and stress right now. Back-to-school is usually a time of celebration, a time of great possibilities for parents and teachers and kids. This week, in every place I’ve gone to, they are worried to death — about what Donald Trump is going to do about the DACAmented kids; [there are] kids who are worried about bullying and intimidation as a result of what happened in Charlottesville; [there is] the hurting and the despair that you see in Texas, where people lost their schools and their homes; the kind of budget cuts to Medicaid, to after-school programs, to summer school programs that the federal government was pushing and, frankly, that we won by one vote; we avoided these huge, draconian Medicaid cuts by one vote in the Senate.

Having said that, [teachers] all over the country find a way to create a protective coat and a bubble of safety and security within those schools to reach kids, to make sure kids have a great education. I get to spend time with people who are really receiving the promise of public education for all students, despite all the obstacles that are thrown at that. So that’s why we’re publics, we’re proud, and that’s why I love, love, love our members — their dedication, their resilience, their capacity to love and to engage children because they want to make a difference in their lives.


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