‘Fighting All My Life’

By Ann Bradley — October 01, 1997 7 min read
Public education was her salvation. For the past three decades, Sandra Feldman has been trying to return the favor.

New York

Sandra Feldman surveys the playground at P.S. 97 in the Baychester section of the Bronx, where dozens of young children with new backpacks and quietly contained energy are lining up for the first day of another school year. More than 50 years ago, Feldman was in their place, starting kindergarten. She can still vividly remember that day.

“Walking into that kindergarten room--it was like a place of many mysteries and miracles,” she says. “One section had this little house. That made the biggest impression on me, because I lived in a chaotic home. This was a little house like you saw in books, with a kitchen and a sitting area. There was a music area, with the teacher’s piano and cymbals.”

There were no such luxuries in the “city-owned slum” in Brooklyn’s Coney Island where Feldman lived with her father, a milkman, her mother, who sometimes worked in a bakery, and a brother and sister. The family was crammed into three rooms of a duplex occupied by four families--all sharing one bathroom. Later, when Feldman was 12, they moved into a low-rise brick housing project.

Feldman’s ticket out of poverty--and into control over her own life, and even to joy--was public education. For the past three decades, she’s been trying to return the favor. Schools are still her favorite places to be. And on this day, the president of the local United Federation of Teachers, five months into her tenure as the head of the national American Federation of Teachers, is beaming in the September sunshine. She is here to inspect the new “transportable” classroom buildings that have been erected on P.S. 97’s blacktop and citywide.

The new classrooms are the fruit of the UFT’s vigorous efforts to alleviate overcrowding. Here in District 11, the union fought a lengthy battle to reduce class size, part of a campaign that resulted last fall in a blizzard of 17,000 grievances over the issue. The union won 60 percent of its claims.

The actions, combined with New York City’s upcoming mayoral election and healthier city and state budgets, produced the transportables. They boast sparkling bathrooms for each class, air conditioning, intercoms, and computer outlets. But as Feldman tours the school, trailed by an entourage of reporters, television camera crews, administrators, and union officials, she never lets up the pressure.

The piano, Feldman says from her own childhood experience, should be “the center of the world in kindergarten.”

“Thank goodness for elections,” she says as she passes through the cafeteria. “If it were not an election year, these little kids would be in here.

“Children shouldn’t have to go to school in these transportables out in the schoolyard,” she asserts with characteristic bluntness as the television cameras roll. “They should have brick-and-mortar buildings.” Feldman adds a plug for an upcoming state bond issue that could funnel about $1 billion to New York for school construction--a message she tirelessly repeats for reporters throughout the morning.

Despite the progress, the union president is dismayed by the condition of a piano she finds in one of P.S. 97’s high-ceilinged kindergartens. The instrument, with broken ivories, looks like it hasn’t been played in years. As the media mill around the room, she asks a UFT representative to find a replacement for the neglected upright. The piano, Feldman says from her own childhood experience, should be “the center of the world in kindergarten.”

Urban schools, and the children who attend them, are the center of Feldman’s world. But she takes the helm of the 950,000-member American Federation of Teachers as dissatisfaction with urban schools is reaching unprecedented heights. Big-city teachers’ unions, which make up the bulk of the AFT’s membership, are feeling the heat. Across the nation, state and local officials are moving to close low-performing schools and start fresh with new teachers and principals. In Milwaukee and Cleveland, the teachers’ unions are fighting voucher programs. In Chicago, radical governance reforms have quieted the once-mighty Chicago Teachers Union. And in Philadelphia, the AFT affiliate has been at war with the superintendent, losing the public relations battle in the process.

Feldman, 57, who was chosen in May by the union’s executive council to succeed the late Albert Shanker, came out swinging. In July, during her first major address to the membership as AFT president, she urged union leaders to advocate the closing and redesign of poor schools--and to negotiate procedures for doing so into their contracts. “Put very simply and most starkly,” she told them, “I propose that we do not seek to defend or perpetuate failing schools to which we would not send our own children.”

She repeated the call in her September “Where We Stand” column, the first in a series to be published monthly in selected newspapers and magazines and supplemented by radio spots in target cities.

In her national debut, a Sept. 9 speech at the National Press Club in Washington, Feldman condemned the widespread practice of so-called social promotion. As part of the AFT’s ongoing campaign for higher academic standards, she released a report describing grade-promotion policies across the nation and calling for early intervention for children falling behind in school.

As the president of the 120,000-member United Federation of Teachers, Feldman is one of the most influential labor leaders in New York City and state.

There was never any question about whether Feldman was up to the job. As the president of the 120,000-member United Federation of Teachers, which boasts 60,000 classroom teachers, plus support personnel and retirees, Feldman is one of the most influential labor leaders in New York City and state. The UFT, in fact, is the world’s largest local union affiliate of any kind, with a full-time staff of 300 and hundreds of part-time workers. It is a major player in state and local politics, with the richest war chest in Albany. Along with money, the union has staying power. In her 11 years as president, Feldman has gone up against five schools chancellors and three mayors in the city, while the governor’s office has switched from Democratic to Republican hands.

Any assessment of Feldman is bound to begin with comparisons with Shanker. By the end of his life, the late AFT president had become an educational statesman. His milieu was national conferences and think tanks, not classrooms. Before assuming national office, Feldman visited schools as often as four times a week. Like Shanker, who relished comparing education systems around the globe, she talks about making American schools internationally competitive. But she tends to praise French preschools rather than the country’s rigorous high school exams. Her real passion, unmistakable in both her public appearances and on playgrounds, is children. Especially poor children.

Although Feldman herself has no children, she seems to consider the 1 million-plus students here her family. “These are our kids, and they are wonderful--and totally misunderstood and misconstrued,” she says on the Bronx school blacktop. “There’s a feeling out in the land about inner-city environments, that the kids are different. And they’re not. They’re just kids.”

Whether Feldman eventually earns the type of accolades showered on Shanker remains for the future. But she does have something that her predecessor had lost: a local track record. Which raises the question--what kind of union leader has Sandra Feldman been in New York City? The answer tilts more heavily toward reformer than traditionalist.

The United Federation of Teachers is a giant within the AFT family, but not just for its clout and size. It long ago began tackling some of the reforms that affiliates of the National Education Association are now being asked to try. The UFT, for example, took early responsibility for teachers’ professional development with its school-based Teacher Centers. Since 1988, the union has sponsored a voluntary peer-intervention program for teachers experiencing difficulty. And in conjunction with local colleges and universities, it offers a vast array of courses and workshops, some leading to master’s degrees. Union leaders from across the country regularly visit the city to see both school-level change and to consult David Sherman, the UFT’s well-respected vice president for educational programs.