Randi Weingarten’s inner demons just had a very bad election cycle.
by Dmitri Mehlhorn
For months, the American Federation of Teachers President pivoted against reform. As hardliners gained power within the unions, Weingarten backtracked on using student results to help evaluate teachers. Her internal rivals didn’t trust her conversion, and demanded that she also distance herself from Common Core and college readiness reforms. Unappeased, militants attacked her as weaker than other union leaders who had opposed reform more fiercely. To shore up her support among the extremists, who exercise disproportionate influence within the national union, Weingarten went big. Along with the National Education Association, her AFT reportedly authorized $80 million in official political investments this cycle, which implies a total investment in the hundreds of millions of dollars when member communications and in-kind resources are included. The unions also went nasty, funding personal smears against Campbell Brown and Marshall Tuck.
This approach spent not just money but credibility. Potential allies such as the editorial board of the liberal San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, wrote that the “myriad distortions” in the AFT’s California commercials served to “break the bounds of credibility.” Analyst Andy Rotherham, who had only recently celebrated the prospects for unions becoming reform partners, concluded that the unions severely damaged their brand in this election. Her new positioning gave even more fodder to those who attack Weingarten personally, such as journalist Kelli Goff who said Weingarten should join Osama bin Laden on the list of “Most Despised People in America,” or public relations guru Rick Berman who has mounted a substantial personal campaign to brand her as a “vicious individual.”
In exchange for all this blood and treasure, the unions lost overwhelmingly on Tuesday. Close wins in California and Pennsylvania failed to offset a dozen high-profile losses, plus dozens more losses down the ballot in states from Georgia and Tennessee to Rhode Island and Ohio.
The only good news for Weingarten from Tuesday was the release of Joel Klein’s new book, Lessons of Hope, which contains surprising vignettes and kudos to Weingarten from a time in her career when she listened to her better angels. As Klein reported, Weingarten provided crucial initial support to Mayoral Control of New York City Schools. She proposed a charter run by the unions, a move that helped reformers doubly by legitimizing the important Bloomberg-led charter expansion in New York City, and even more importantly by showing a willingness to put her pro-union ideas to the test in a specific school. After negotiations and arbitration resulted in a pro-reform contract that was controversial with her members, Weingarten “aggressively sold it to her members,” securing a narrow victory for reform. More broadly, Klein concluded that Weingarten had “a fundamental sense of decency” whose personal class dictated many of her actions.
Now is the time for Weingarten to return to her better angels. In New York City, even while representing union interests, her sense of fair play was crucial to a package of reforms that benefitted students. At the conclusion of that episode in her career, she was elected national AFT president and became one of the leading national figures in the public sector labor movement. She showed that she could look for solutions, and put momentum behind teacher accountability initiatives in districts such as New Haven, Connecticut.
When I recently criticized attacks on pro-reform teachers, Weingarten accused me of a double standard by ignoring attacks against her. But many reformers have stood up for Weingarten against personal smears, and for the record I agree that they are shameful and not productive. We can disagree with Weingarten without attacking her. Reformers, however, have been much quicker to defend Weingarten when she’s actually helped the cause of progress by telling hard truths to her members.
Weingarten needs to realize that her anti-reform approach this past year is a recipe for long-term failure. As Andy Rotherham and Richard Whitmire wrote recently, “in the long run [these hardliners] are dooming the schools they claim to care about to mediocrity and abandonment by the middle class, and putting the union they profess to love on a path to irrelevance.” Ultimately, schools are beholden to the taxpayers who fund them and the parents whose children are subject to compulsory education. Eventually, whether via homeschooling and private schools or via political cataclysm, the American public will reject uneven results from the best-funded K12 system in human history. As the New York Times editorial board wrote recently, “the unions can either work to change … or they will have change thrust upon them.”