The Education Wars

Like any successful negotiator, Randi Weingarten can sense when the time for compromise is nigh. On Nov. 17, after the Election Day dust had cleared, Weingarten, the president of both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and its New York City affiliate, the United Federation of Teachers, gave a major speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. In attendance were a host of education-policy luminaries, including Weingarten's sometimes-foe Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern, National Education Association (NEA) President Dennis van Roekel, and Rep. George Miller of California.

"No issue should be off the table, provided it is good for children and fair for teachers," Weingarten vowed, referencing debates within the Democratic coalition over charter schools and performance pay for teachers -- innovations that teachers' unions traditionally held at arm's length.

The first openly gay president of a major American labor union, Weingarten is small -- both short and slight. But she speaks in the commanding, practiced tones of a unionist. In speeches, newspaper op-eds, and public appearances, Weingarten, once known as a guns-blazing New York power broker, has been trying to carve out a conciliatory role for herself in the national debate over education policy. It is a public-relations strategy clearly crafted for the Obama era: an effort to focus on common ground instead of long-simmering differences.

Notably absent from the audience for Weingarten's post-election speech was D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. In the summer of 2007, Rhee, a Teach For America alumna and founder of the anti-union New Teacher Project, took office and quickly implemented an agenda of school closings, teacher and principal firings, and a push toward merit pay. These actions met with their fair share of outrage from both parents and teachers and especially from the local teachers' union. At the time of Weingarten's speech, Rhee and the AFT-affiliated Washington Teachers' Union (WTU) were stalemated over a proposed new contract for teachers.

In 2009, the major fight on education policy isn't between Republicans and unions, or even Republicans and Democrats, but rather within the Democratic coalition. And infighting can be the most vicious kind. On one side are the traditional players in education politics -- the two major teachers' unions, the NEA and the AFT. On the other are union-skeptic education-policy wonks like Rhee, sometimes referred to as "reformers." (The unions dispute that terminology, arguing that they too support the improvement of American schools.) Union-lobbying efforts focus on greater funding for public schools and social services more generally and on opposition to the punishing mandates of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law. The self-designated "reformers," on the other hand, are often enthusiastic about NCLB and testing and are intent on pursuing new management policies, such as merit pay, public charter schools, and even private-school vouchers. They believe, broadly speaking, that free-market principles applied to public schools will improve student achievement, especially in low-income communities of color.

Weingarten's speech was an olive branch of sorts. In her remarks, she advocated for a controversial program in which master teachers help train novices and work with administrators to determine whether teachers should be granted tenure. She also came out in support of school-wide differentiated pay. While "merit pay" is a code word for evaluating teachers based upon their students' test scores -- and is roundly rejected by both major teachers' unions -- "differentiated pay" awards salary bonuses to every teacher when the school's overall academic performance improves, or offers extra pay for teaching hard-to-staff subjects, working in rough schools, or taking on responsibilities such as mentoring new teachers.

Weingarten didn't say anything that she hadn't said before. But by directly addressing her critics in such a public way, she managed to position herself as the face to watch in education policy -- the marker of the moving center. (The AFT has already put its money where Weingarten's mouth is, launching a $1 million Fund for Innovation to support and promote successful teacher and union-led school-reform efforts taking place at the local level.) NEA President Van Roekel, seen by many as left behind by AFT's reformist positioning, says he doesn't disagree with anything in Weingarten's speech. "I loved it," he swears. "We are going to work together."

For Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a New York-based lobbying group, the speech proved Weingarten is serious about accepting reformers as legitimate voices in the policy debate. "I think that she's got her finger up in the air and knows that the wind is blowing," Williams says. "She's going to end up getting credit for being involved in this larger grand bargain that's going to be made."

***

But not everyone greeted Weingarten's speech happily. Michelle Rhee was skeptical, considering the AFT's initial rejection of many of the tenets of her proposed contract. "It's easy to say everything is on the table," Rhee says. "I think that excites people because they say, good, we have a really reform-minded union leader. But when push comes to shove, are you willing to consider everything? And I haven't seen any indication of that. Yet."

Some of Weingarten's critics saw her as forced into a defensive crouch. "You know the saying, 'When you're being run out of town, get out in front? Make it look like a parade?' Well, that is what she's doing. And I give her credit for it," says Whitney Tilson, an investment manager and board member of Democrats for Education Reform. "The question is, would I, as a reformer, rather have just an old-school, pure status-quo, thuggish union leader who embraces no reform at all, but everybody knows it? Or would you rather have Randi, who will sort of embrace a little reform and talk the game? You get some things done with her. But she is very clever."

Weingarten, of course, rejects the characterization of her policy positions as highly calculated or inherently piecemeal. "I was trying not to be opaque; I was trying to be really real," she says. Coyly, she adopts some of the language of standardized-testing advocates. "By even seeking the opportunity to give that speech, I created a huge high-stakes test for myself."

Since Weingarten's ascendance to the AFT presidency last June, she has become the national face of the teachers' union movement as it finds itself increasingly challenged from within the Democratic coalition. The NEA, with 3.2 million members, is the larger of the national teachers' unions but is widely seen as insufficiently committed to closing the achievement gap between middle-class white kids and low-income children of color. The AFT is smaller, with 1.4 million members, but unlike the NEA, it has long been known for its interest in raising student achievement. Under Weingarten's leadership, the AFT's lobbying priorities include the expected agenda items, fighting for better benefits and working conditions for teachers and school support staff, and increasing state and federal funding for schools. But Weingarten has also advanced a vision of schools as community centers, offering children and their families the full panoply of health and nutrition services that social scientists say are necessary for low-income students to succeed academically. These ideas were outlined during election season by a group of policy experts who published a manifesto called "A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education."

The reformers have a competing set of principles, put forth by a coalition called the Education Equality Project. They believe the best way to improve the achievement of low-income, minority students is to shake up the way school districts are managed and the rules by which teachers are hired, fired, and paid. These donors, policy experts, and educators have formed an alliance with civil-rights activists and black politicians, among them the Rev. Al Sharpton. Democrats for Education Reform, their two-year-old lobbying group, is underwritten by hedge-fund millionaires and philanthropists such as Bill Gates and real-estate mogul Eli Broad. The reformers are more aligned with the corporate world than they are with traditional allies of public education, such as organized labor, colleges of education, and local community groups. Many of the leaders of this movement, such as Mayor Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein (a former corporate attorney and prosecutor), had little experience in education before diving head first into the debate.

That, of course, ruffles the feathers of the teachers' unions, which have been working on education policy for decades and represent the people who spend all day with children and the messy social problems they bring with them into the classroom. It isn't uncommon for both sides to accuse the other of not having kids' best interest at heart; the unions say the reformers are anti-worker ideologues; the reformers consider many teachers incompetent and their unions reactionary and protectionist.

"I'd fight in the sandbox just like they would and make the same kinds of sarcastic comments or disparaging comments about others," Weingarten says of her old self, the Randi who came up as a New York City labor lawyer. That Randi ended the political career of City Councilmember Eva Moskowitz, who held hearings critical of teacher work rules. Weingarten still spends more than half her time in New York City. But the new, Beltway Randi says she is less angry.

"You may look heroic when you yell at people," Weingarten says, "but if you actually find ways to really work together and reach across the aisle, that's what I want." Despite some skepticism from those who've known her the longest, that's Weingarten's story. She's sticking to it.

***

The intra-Democratic Party education fight has played out most contentiously in Washington, D.C. -- not on Capitol Hill but in the Other Washington, a historically corrupt, poverty-stricken city that is gentrifying in fits and starts. Once 70 percent black, D.C. is now 55 percent black with a growing Spanish-speaking population. More than one-third of the adult population is functionally illiterate, and 5 percent is infected with HIV. With an expanding white professional class, the city has some of the highest income inequality in the United States. The public school system, only 5 percent white, is seen as one of the most dysfunctional in the country.

Rhee is staking her reputation as a reform-minded chancellor on a contentious attempt to institute a merit-pay system. Her plan would be the most radical overhaul of teacher work rules since the rise of the teachers' union movement to national prominence in the 1960s. Rhee's contract, first proposed in September, would create two employment tracks for teachers. The "green" track would require teachers to give up tenure for one year in exchange for the possibility of large merit-pay bonuses financed by undisclosed philanthropies. Under the original "green" plan, teacher salaries supposedly could have reached $130,000. Alternatively, teachers could choose the "red" track: retain tenure and stick to a traditional, seniority-based salary ladder with a lower ceiling.

The color-coded proposal left little doubt about Rhee's intentions toward the Washington Teachers' Union. Tenure was "stop"; the slow, reactionary path. Merit pay was the "go" option. Weingarten saw the proposal as intentionally shaming those teachers who would choose to retain tenure, long a cornerstone of the profession. "Remember the book The Scarlet Letter?" she asks. "A parent is going to know, oh, this is a red teacher. Oh, this is a green teacher. How do you create that kind of divisiveness in an environment where you need team work? It's a recipe for disaster."

In early February, the WTU presented Rhee's administration with its counterproposals. According to a source involved with the negotiations, which were ongoing at press time, the union is comfortable with preserving some elements of Rhee's performance-pay plan, although bonuses could be smaller than expected because of budgetary constraints. The union plan does away with the two-track system. Instead, seniority and educational attainment would continue to be factors in how teachers are paid but so would performance evaluations, which would encompass a number of elements. Rhee has appointed a working group of veteran teachers to create a new evaluation system and has said that under her plan, teachers and principals will work together to set the goals a teacher must reach to earn a bonus.

"The vast majority of teachers don't teach tested grades or tested subject areas," Rhee tells me. "So clearly we have to put together an evaluation process that takes into account some measure of student achievement. But there are multiple ways to measure the academic progress of kids." How big a role students' test scores would play in those evaluations -- as well as other important personnel processes -- remained unclear.

Complicating matters, the disagreements between Rhee and the union extend beyond the contract to one of the oldest debates in education: tracking. WTU's president, George Parker, says D.C. teachers need training on how to tailor the same lesson to the varying aptitude levels of students in one classroom. Parker also says D.C. needs to pull students with special-education needs and severe behavioral problems out of regular classrooms. But Rhee has frequently advocated for mainstreaming and has said some funding for her merit-pay plan would come from trimming the district's special-education budget.

For its part, the AFT urges a holistic approach to education policy. While the reformers believe staffing issues are the central challenge facing schools, the unions point to factors such as bad student behavior, poor facilities, unclear instructional goals, and inactive parents. These are two drastically different ways of looking at children and their world: One suggests students are shaped by an endless confluence of social factors and innate personal characteristics. The other posits that a single adult -- a teacher -- can make all the difference in a child's life.

Education-policy experts often claim they adore everybody who works on progressive education issues, regardless of where they come down on this central question. "I cannot fathom why Joel [Klein] and Randi have so much trouble. I'm friends with both of them!" laughs one high-level Obama education adviser. The comment is typical. But in reality, get a few of these players across a negotiating table, and things can get nasty.

***

At least in theory, charter schools should be a point of compromise in the education wars. Albert Shanker, the AFT's (in)famous president from 1974 to 1997, was an early proponent of charter schools -- which are smaller and more independent than other public schools -- though he soured on the concept when he saw how conservatives used charters as an excuse to drain resources from traditional public schools. Today, the reformer camp views charters as the leaders in school improvement. Under Weingarten's leadership, the United Federation of Teachers unsuccessfully lobbied to prevent New York state from lifting the cap on the number of charter schools allowed to open in a year. But the UFT also opened up two of its own public charter schools in New York City. Only 86 of the some 4,000 charter schools operating nationwide are unionized, but the AFT clearly accepts the sector's existence and likely growth.

In practice, charter schools have inspired some of the bitterest fighting in education policy. The charter school movement was founded, in part, on the idea that union work rules, such as tenure and limited-hour days, are antithetical to running a high-achieving school for low-income students. Teaching poor children -- who arrive at school disadvantaged socially, nutritionally, and often cognitively -- is so challenging, the thinking goes, that near super-human levels of commitment are required. Crack-of-dawn mornings. School days that last until 5 or 6 P.M. Saturday classes. If a teacher can't cut it, he or she should be quickly terminated. After all, there is no time to waste in the life of a struggling child. Many charter administrators consider unions an anathema to this ideology, because they prevent principals from quickly removing ineffective teachers.

For supporters of charter schools, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) network represents the apogee of the movement. Although test scores show KIPP schools are some of the best in the country at educating low-income, minority students, labor problems have plagued the 66-school network. A September 2008 study of five KIPP middle schools in the San Francisco Bay Area found that, as a group, they experienced much higher teacher turnover than the typical high-poverty urban school. In one school, 65 percent of the faculty left between one academic year and the next.

KIPP's defenders argue that the concept of teaching as a lifetime career may be flawed. Research suggests that, especially in math and the sciences, teachers with greater academic and professional credentials in the subjects they teach are more effective at raising student test scores than those with more years in the classroom but less advanced knowledge of the relevant subject area. Yet at some KIPP schools, the teachers themselves are questioning this model. In January, teachers at the KIPP AMP Academy in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, announced that they had collected enough signatures to organize their colleagues with the UFT. The reaction was intense. "The whole idea of running a KIPP academy along with a thousand page union contract is absurd," wrote education blogger Jay P. Greene, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute. "Half-days on Saturday? Not on your life. On call to help with homework? Are you kidding?"

After initially promising to work with the union at AMP Academy, KIPP's management pulled back in February. AMP teachers say administrators made veiled threats about the outcome of joining a union and even called students into private meetings where they were asked to assess their teachers. "We're trying to contour a contract in a way that's tailored to the work of the charter," Weingarten says. "Reflexively, they don't want it. They want to be able to do what they want to do. It's pretty antithetical to the notion of democracy."

KIPP co-founder Dave Levin ignored two interview requests for this article. But Whitney Tilson, who also serves as vice president of the board of KIPP Academy in the Bronx, is frank about his distaste for teachers' unions. "They have more than a billion dollars a year of combined budget," Tilson says of the AFT and NEA. "Goodness knows how much of that is channeled into buying influence. There can't be more than two dozen of us nationwide who are part of this guerilla group of David versus Goliath. It's not even like we're billionaires. Really the only thing that we have going for us is that we're right. OK?"

Needless to say, statements like that one hardly breed compromise or cooperation. And while Tilson and his fellow education entrepreneurs may not be billionaires, many of them are, indeed, millionaires. They may not believe in tenure, but their arguments against job security will likely fall flat for many teachers earning $35,000 a year, especially in the midst of a recession.

"When education reform is done without teachers' input, it is doomed to failure," Weingarten says. It is perhaps her most compelling argument for giving teachers' unions a voice at the education-reform table. About 70 percent of the nation's public-school teachers are unionized. With teachers at high-achieving charter schools turning toward unions for support -- not just at AMP Academy but at other charter schools in New York City, Massachusetts, and California -- the evidence suggests both teachers' unions and entrepreneurial education reform are here to stay. The give and take between them will shape the future of education policy.

***

The series of compromises in the New York City and Washington, D.C., school districts are providing the sketches of a workable model: expansion of the magnet school and public charter school sectors but also an increase in unionization of these schools. Unions are making peace with nontraditional pathways into teaching, both for recent college graduates and mid-career professionals. And unions are slowly accepting that many younger members prioritize higher pay and better training over long-term job security. Meanwhile, reformers are learning not to put the cart before the horse, as evidenced by Michelle Rhee's late-in-the-game realization that few people will be comfortable with firing teachers until there is a consensus around how to assess their performance -- and preferably one that recognizes standardized test scores are incomplete predictors of how much a student has learned.

The real inspiration for this consensus-building may be Barack Obama. He has accepted two basic truths about education policy: Teachers' unions are powerful, and education reform is necessary for poor children. On the campaign trail in 2007, Obama was booed at a teachers' union event for advocating merit pay. But as the election wore on, he learned to more carefully bridge the divide between the unions and education entrepreneurs. In July, he praised the AFT for its willingness to compromise. "You've shown that it is possible to find new ways to increase teacher pay that are developed with teachers, not imposed on them," Obama said. He swore to support only performance-pay plans developed in cooperation with unions -- a major victory for Weingarten. Yet in an October debate, he referred to Michelle Rhee as Washington's "wonderful new superintendent."

Since assuming office, Obama has continued to play to both sides. To the delight of edu-wonks, the economic-stimulus package included $100 billion for schools. The administration's main goal was to stem local budget losses, but there are also funds to attract new teachers to high-need schools and to support education innovation at the local level. On Feb. 3, the president and Michelle Obama visited a D.C. public charter school -- Obama's first visit to any school as president. His education secretary, Arne Duncan, was seen as a compromise choice between unions and reformers. And Obama's address to Congress on Feb. 24 called for performance pay and support for charter schools but also higher pay and job security for teachers. The calculus seemed directly lifted from Weingarten's Press Club speech.

There may not yet be room for an Obama-style compromise on issues such as differentiated pay and charter schools, but national curriculum standards are an emerging point of consensus between teachers' unions and reformers. In the post-NCLB era, some states sought to avoid the legislation's punishments by creating easier and easier tests for students to pass. On Feb. 16, Weingarten wrote a Washington Post op-ed advocating for national standards. "Imagine the outrage if, say, the Pittsburgh Steelers had to move the ball the full 10 yards for a first down during the Super Bowl while the Arizona Cardinals had to go only seven," she wrote. "Such a system would be unfair and preposterous. But there is little outrage over the uneven patchwork of academic standards for students in our 50 states and the District of Columbia."

Most reformers agree. But even if the Democratic coalition can come together around an education agenda that includes national standards, it will still have to take the fight to conservatives. The Republican right was brow-beaten by President Bush into supporting NCLB in 2001 and is now vociferously opposed to the law, in large part because it took power away from local school districts. And should national standards come before Congress, curriculum issues such as evolution, sex education, and interpretations of American history could very well overtake any larger discussion of school improvement.

If that happens, Randi Weingarten will probably be down in the trenches, negotiating relentlessly with both reformers and Republicans. It is easy to see that she wants to be part of what Joe Williams calls "the grand bargain," the crafting of the next big federal education-reform policy.

"You know, I'm probably a disruptor, by birth and by training," Weingarten says, referring to Rep. George Miller's term for reformers who want to work quickly to improve American schools. "I think those of us who've been successful in life have been ones who have actually built continuous, sustainable reform. Do you need to have people who shake things up? Of course you do. But there's a difference between shaking up and demonizing. And between shaking up and destroying things. Change for change's sake doesn't work."

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