AFT Elects N.Y.C. Leader as New President

By Linda Jacobson — May 14, 1997 3 min read


Vowing to be a relentless opponent of publicly funded vouchers, Sandra Feldman took over as president of the American of Federation of Teachers last week and promised to move forward with the agenda that Albert Shanker established for the union before his death in February.

Currently the president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, Ms. Feldman, as anticipated, was selected unanimously by the AFT’s executive council to serve out the remainder of Mr. Shanker’s term. She is also expected to be a candidate for union president when an election is held during next year’s national convention in New Orleans. (“The End of an Era,” March 5, 1997.)

As Mr. Shanker himself did for 12 years, Ms. Feldman will serve a dual role, remaining president of the 125,000-member UFT and leading the 940,000-member national organization. She plans to keep her residence in New York City, as her predecessor did.

“I can never replace Al Shanker. No one can,” Ms. Feldman said.

‘Lessons For Life’

But she has been in lock step with him for years, and if not his hand-picked successor, certainly his protege.

For example, she said last week that she is committed to furthering the AFT’s “Lessons for Life” campaign, the union’s back-to-basics response to the public’s demand for high academic standards and safe and orderly schools.

Launched in 1995, the crusade promotes what the union sees as a common-sense approach to the problems of public schools and advocates national academic standards and assessments and strict student-behavior policies. (“AFT Project To Push Order and the Basics,” Sept. 6, 1995.)

“These issues are finally on the front burner, and what used to be unthinkable--national education standards and tests--is now being taken seriously across the country,” Ms. Feldman said in an interview after her election here.

She said that her job now is to work with local and state affiliates to implement the Lessons for Life campaign in the schools.

Local control of schools is “deeply ingrained” in the American system, Ms. Feldman said, but the American public ought to be able to “agree on what we want children to learn. We don’t have to start out making it mandatory.”

Moves Toward Merger

Throughout her comments, Ms. Feldman emphasized her strong opposition to private-school-choice proposals and said she was encouraged by an Ohio appeals court decision this month overturning the voucher program in Cleveland.

“We oppose [vouchers] because they won’t work and because we want what does work for all children,” she said.

While she has been involved in creating “charter like” schools in New York City, she said, she nonetheless is against charter schools that are designed to promote a particular ideology or “appear to be a way to get public dollars for private schools.”

A native of the borough of Brooklyn, Ms. Feldman is the AFT’s first female president since 1930. A graduate of Brooklyn College and New York University, she is a former teacher who joined the UFT staff as a field representative in 1966. She also served as the affiliate’s executive director before succeeding Mr. Shanker as uft president in 1986.

She has been an active player in the ongoing discussions about the AFT’s possible merger with the larger National Education Association, and said at a press conference last week that those talks have intensified.

“The issues we are talking about are extremely complex,” she said. But she also said that the new focus the NEA espouses on improving school quality, forging partnerships with administrators, and removing ineffective teachers is more in line with AFT’s philosophies and makes her and NEA President Bob Chase more compatible. (“Seeking ‘Reinvention’ of NEA, Chase Calls for Shift in Priorities,” Feb. 12, 1997.)

“She’s a proven leader and a seasoned professional--and combines traditional tough-minded unionism with a creative and open mind about education improvement,” Mr. Chase said in a statement released after Ms. Feldman’s election. “I’m confident that we’ll continue to work together closely as merger talks between the NEA and AFT move ahead.”