POLITICS

The Tide Is Turning For Teachers Unions. Randi Weingarten Isn’t Surprised.

A “silent majority” is taking back education policy, according to the union chief.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten wants her union's members to feel "empowered" by the organization'
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten wants her union's members to feel "empowered" by the organization's 2020 endorsement process.

Randi Weingarten, 61, has been an ever-present force in national Democratic politics since taking the helm of the American Federation of Teachers labor union in 2008.

With 1.7 million members at her command, Weingarten stands to play an important role in the fight to unseat President Donald Trump in 2020.

But first she needs to unite her diverse membership behind a Democratic candidate.

The union elicited criticism from some members for endorsing Hillary Clinton in July 2015 ― more than six months before any votes were cast in the race for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

Now Weingarten is promising a slower, more transparent endorsement process that gives union members plenty of time to hear from the party’s plethora of White House contenders and give feedback before the AFT’s executive council makes a decision.

HuffPost spoke to Weingarten about the union’s endorsement process; the role of perceived electability in the Democratic presidential primary; her views of longtime school choice proponent Sen. Cory Booker, who is among those seeking the party’s nod; her deleted tweet questioning whether Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign was involved in Lucy Flores’ allegation of unwanted kissing against former Vice President Joe Biden.

In the interview, Weingarten also stressed that she believes the national debate over education policy has shifted decisively in teacher unions’ direction.

“The climate is changing and the narrative is changing and people are more willing to vote on these things,” Weingarten said.

Below is a transcript of HuffPost’s interview, condensed and edited for clarity.

Do you regret tweeting that [Lucy] Flores might have been motivated to speak up by the Sanders campaign?

I actually deleted that tweet when the Sanders campaign called me and said that they didn’t. What I suggested to them is, could they respond to the tweet, and they said, ‘No, could you delete it’? 

I often forget this about Twitter. Twitter has no context. But all day long on MSNBC and other places, you had a lot of scuttlebutt about [the Sanders campaign’s involvement].

My thought was, I couldn’t imagine that this was true. I couldn’t imagine that [the Sanders campaign] could have done this.

In retrospect, Al Franken (the Democratic senator from Minnesota who ultimately resigned his seat after allegations of improper touching of women from years past surfaced) had made a decision [to subject] himself to whatever inquiry. And he should have gone through that process. I say that as a survivor, as someone who was raped, as someone who understands my own journey and process in this.

We have to deal with harassment and assault and bullying and all these things. And there should be zero tolerance for assault ― period, the end. We need to create safe environments for women ― period.

But we also need to have some due process and ensure that there is a benefit of the doubt that is given. By not being able to do that, it also undermines someone who was as courageous as Christine Blasey Ford, who had a story to tell, who should have been given her due. That should not have been done through the lens of politics.

You gave your imprimatur to a controversial Newark schools contract in 2012 when the city received a lot of money from Mark Zuckerberg. You’ve since become critical of how it was implemented. In light of that, what do you think of then-Mayor Cory Booker’s role in the Newark reform effort?

Look, I like Cory Booker. I think he’s an interesting political actor in the United States right now. But his education record leaves much to be desired. 

[Current Mayor] Ras Baraka, who was an educator, wants to actually do things like really focus on children’s well-being and meet the needs of children and think about how to have a city school system, which now is democratically controlled again, that meets the needs of each and every child.

What Booker did is basically outsource it to the charter movement. 

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) at his presidential campaign kickoff rally earlier this year in Newark, N.J. His support for public
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) at his presidential campaign kickoff rally earlier this year in Newark, N.J. His support for public charter schools and other policies has put him at odds with teachers unions.

Does that mean there is no chance of an AFT endorsement of Booker in the presidential primary?

I’ve been really careful to every reporter I talk to, to say that we are at the stage of the members really being engaged in the process. There are members who will look at Cory only through the lens of ― not the charter experience, but of what he said in 2008 about this particular type of education reform, which essentially undermined regular public schools.

We’re trying to have him have a conversation with our members about where he stands right now and be able to answer our questions. But I’m not putting myself in a position that we’re putting a thumb on the scale for anybody.

But say something happens that, in the next six months, Cory zooms to the top and he becomes the nominee. Would my members vote for Cory Booker or endorse Cory Booker over Donald Trump? Yes, they would, if that were the situation.

We make a huge mistake when we think that things are as simple as an either/or of electability or values. It has to be both. Randi Weingarten

But now? It’s premature to say anything given the other candidates who are so much more pro-public education and have walked that walk for decades.

It’s premature to either discount anyone or say, ‘This is where my endorsement is going to go.’ And it undermines the process we put together, because that’s important.

For me, the process this time is as important as the result. People have to feel empowered. It is absolutely essential that nobody sits on the sidelines in November 2020.

I want Cory Booker, just like (Sen.) Kamala Harris is doing in Detroit, walking the walk with our members, having a town hall with them, just like (Sen.) Elizabeth Warren is doing in Philadelphia in a couple of weeks, just like Bernie did in Lordstown, (Ohio).

I want Cory Booker to do this and actually answer questions from people. That would show a lot of character.

And there’s no Booker town hall yet?

Not yet. But I think he’s open to it and we’re open to it.

As I understand it, the [Communication Workers of America] actually surveyed its members before endorsing in 2016 ―

We did too.

But CWA had its members vote on the endorsement. Why not actually have it be a union-wide referendum in AFT?  

Because at one point or another, the random sample of members in our polls is actually much more accurate. At the end of the day, our members over and over and over again were in favor of Hillary Clinton.

The issue is, when you have 1.7 million people [in the union], when you do a random sample, it’s pretty accurate.

If we actually try to do something another way, just like in the census, it will be enormously expensive. And you’re not going to actually be able to do this in a way that reaches everybody, so you’ll get the activists.

There is this whole electability argument going on among Democrats now. Alyssa Milano, an actress and activist, said picking a candidate who can defeat Trump is more important than anything else. The counter-argument from the left is that it risks repeating the mistakes of 2016.

We make a huge mistake when we think that things are as simple as an either/or of electability or values. It has to be both. Because people will sit on the sidelines unless they trust that candidate really will fight for their interests.

Betsy Devos' tenure as President Donald Trump's education secretary has been marked by a hardline agenda against traditional
Betsy Devos' tenure as President Donald Trump's education secretary has been marked by a hardline agenda against traditional public schools. That may help galvanize activism by teachers in the 2020 election.

Your members, in some ways, are being more mobilized and militant than ever. I say that not in a negative way ―

No, it’s great!

And I think [Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos has helped in a perverse way to shift the Democratic Party consensus on education away from school choice-based approaches. And I guess my question is ―  

I would actually argue that that was the silent majority that’s actually just coming up again. But we get to the same place.

Fair enough. Is it a goal of AFT to avoid another of what I’d call an “Arne Duncan scenario,” where a Democratic president has a neoliberal education reform agenda?  

It’s no secret that there was a lot of tension between the Obama administration and us over [former Education Secretary] Arne Duncan’s leadership style and policies.

The issue for us is this: We don’t see it through the lens of politics. Politics is a way of trying to actually make things happen. We see it as: How do you strengthen community schools? How do you strengthen public schools that 90% of Americans attend?

How do you create a paradigm shift so most of America is focused on that as opposed to the top-down, test-based, treat-students-as-a-number, treat-teachers-as-an-algorithm, and threaten schools, teachers and kids if you don’t succeed on math and English tests?

And whatever Arne Duncan and the so-called ed reformers called it, what they were doing was using the market, competition, privatization and austerity as their tools to shake up a system, as opposed to meeting children’s needs as a dominant issue. 

Nobody wants the status quo. Randi Weingarten

However you frame it, are you optimistic that the tide is turning and that this so-called education reform movement, as you put it, has peaked in its power?

I’m optimistic because the narrative is changing. More and more people are saying, ‘Let’s actually focus on neighborhood public schools. And let’s actually strengthen them!’

Nobody wants the status quo. Politics is a tool to actually get there. Politics is not an end of itself.

But the reason that is changing is because the climate is changing and the narrative is changing and people are more willing to vote on these things. How do you have a school that has rodents where the first thing teachers do when they get in every morning is clean up rat dung?

So I think what you’re seeing is that the priorities for schooling are about strengthening neighborhood schools for how you help kids, not about shaking people up and creating fear and assuming their incompetence. Because the other process basically assumed that teachers had to be told what to do because they were either incompetent or unwilling to do that. And that was just horrible. 

It’s crap to actually have that assumption about teachers. Teachers want what kids need. Does that mean that we know everything about what to do? No.

But I do think we shaped the conversation around ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act), the bipartisan bill that was passed and signed by Obama in 2015. It enabled people to start thinking about schooling differently again. And I think we are on that pathway.

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