‘Fighting All My Life’

By Ann Bradley — October 01, 1997 7 min read
Never a patient person, Feldman has even less time to waste now that she has two full-time jobs.

While the two were indisputably close, Feldman was not Shanker’s handpicked successor, argues Rachelle Horowitz, a consultant to the AFT and a personal friend of Feldman’s. Shanker realized Feldman’s potential and gave her tough assignments. “His organizational technique was to hire people and let them do things,” Horowitz says. “If they worked, good. If they didn’t, they were gone. She earned it.”

Some of Feldman’s personal tastes, including her interest in African art, were shaped by Shanker and Bayard Rustin, the civil rights leader who organized the 1963 March on Washington, advised the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute. Like Shanker, she enjoys good restaurants. She collects antiques, listens to jazz, and is an avid reader. Feldman also likes to shop, Horowitz says. “She’s a good, fast shopper. She can whiz through, take a look, and try it on.”

Never a patient person, Feldman has even less time to waste now that she has two full-time jobs. She flies the shuttle between New York--where she and her second husband, businessman Arthur Barnes, share an apartment--and Washington. Typically, she splits the week between the two cities. In New York, she travels with her driver in a black Buick Park Avenue from the UFT’s headquarters at 260 Park Ave. South throughout the city, often conducting business on the car phone. Union staffers say they’ve seen little change since their boss assumed the AFT job in May. Susan Amlung, the UFT’s communications director, says Feldman “personally reads every single thing that goes out from this union. We send big, thick envelopes to her home, and we get them back the next morning all read and amply notated.”

Feldman believes that anything less is unacceptable. “When you’re representing teachers, you’re representing people with master’s degrees, people who have lots of strong opinions about things, and who are very aware and conscious of issues,” she says. “We have tremendous participation and active involvement in the union. You’ve got to meet their standards to be their leader.”

As the new president of the AFT--and the first woman to hold the job since 1930--Feldman has her work already spelled out for her. As president of the AFT’s most powerful local affiliate, she was instrumental in crafting the national union’s agenda: raising standards of conduct and achievement for students, adopting proven programs, and, now, closing failing schools. What she can contribute, Feldman says, is “hands-on, really deep knowledge of how schools work and what needs to be done for them.”

New York educators from all ends of the political spectrum have opposing views of what a standard should look like.

“At the national level, obviously, policies are important,” she says, “but what I am very interested in also is helping local unions implement those kinds of policies. They need help. They need backing, they need support, they need a lot of how-to advice. That’s what I hope to provide.”

What people don’t need, she believes, is pointless conflict. In Philadelphia, where the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has been battling the superintendent over closing poor schools, Feldman met with union leaders and Mayor Edward Rendell. She’s also visited Chicago to discuss the same sensitive issue. And she has traveled to Cincinnati to give her support and encouragement to the reform-oriented AFT affiliate.

Feldman “brings to the education reform movement the credibility of having broken new ground as a local leader and taken some real bold steps,” says Tom Mooney, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. “She’s informal and down-to-earth. You can feel free to tell her what you think.”

Adam Urbanski, another risk-taking AFT vice president and the head of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association, praises Feldman as “inordinately careful not to abuse her influence.” (She told him it was counterproductive to travel too much, Urbanski notes, rather than pay attention to his local. He didn’t heed her advice.)

The fact that Feldman takes the helm with a blueprint already in place, Urbanski argues, doesn’t mean she won’t make her own mark. Named to fill out Shanker’s unexpired term, Feldman will face her first AFT election next summer. She is expected to be unopposed and to continue to serve as president of the UFT at least until 1999.

“Just because we have identified the Ten Commandments doesn’t mean there’s nothing for a priest to do,” Urbanski says. “As long as there’s social promotion and we have no standards, we’ll have no results. We’ve got to do it.”

In New York state, where Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills is raising the bar for students to graduate from high school, the standards debate is moving from abstraction to reality. Feldman has met with Mills and conveyed the AFT’s criticism that some subject-matter standards are too vague.

In the city, top union officials are working with District 2 in Manhattan and a handful of other community school districts that have embraced the work of New Standards, a private, nonprofit partnership that has created assessments geared to national standards. The UFT pressed to have the city’s lowest-performing schools, which are under state review, adopt a successful reading program. And the union is closely monitoring early-childhood programs this year, pledging to report next spring any attempts by supervisors to promote unprepared children or to change students’ grades over teachers’ objections.

“I’ve been fighting all my life for the things I believe in. It’s what I live for.”

Sandra Feldman,

Navigating the move to higher standards isn’t easy, Feldman says. Clearly, New York educators from all ends of the political spectrum have opposing views of what a standard should even look like.

“A lot of the standards work being done is basically everybody feeling their way to higher standards,” she observes. “We’re a tough union--you know I’m in a fight for a pension benefit--but we’re also going to fight as hard for making sure the schools work for kids.”

While Feldman defines her agenda primarily in positive terms, she is adamantly against some proposed reforms. Not surprisingly, these include vouchers and charter schools if they are “used as a wedge for vouchers.”

On the day after her National Press Club speech--which was capped by dinner with Bob Chase, the president of the National Education Association--Feldman rises early to appear on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” program with Gov. Arne Carlson of Minnesota. The GOP governor is in Washington on a victory tour, touting his success at passing a package of tax credits and deductions that he says will allow Minnesotans greater choice in education. Carlson is unsparingly critical of the two teachers’ unions, complaining that they have opposed public school choice and charter schools. “All they want is more money and less accountability,” he charges on the show.

Across the table, Feldman fires back, arguing that the nation must educate 50 million schoolchildren: “We’re not going to do that by giving parents $1,000 to go out and find a private school somewhere.”

“The whole engine of America has been driven by competition and driving for quality,” the governor says at another point. “The truth is, what the teachers’ union wants is a continuation of the monopoly.”

The debate gets heated, with Feldman telling Carlson that he seems like “an angry man” and the governor complaining that public educators have been asking for time and money for 40 years.

Both argue from personal experience. Carlson, the son of Swedish immigrants, grew up poor in the Bronx and won a full scholarship to Choate, an elite private boarding school in Connecticut. Feldman missed a similar opportunity when her mother rejected teachers’ recommendations that Sandy attend a magnet school for gifted children. She didn’t want her young daughter traveling into Manhattan alone.

The hourlong show is draining just to watch. But Feldman, who admits she needed a strong cup of coffee to get going on the muggy morning, emerges with a smile, a crack about Minnesota’s weather, and a handshake for Carlson.

“My adrenaline starts working,” she explains of her cheery demeanor. “I love that stuff. I’ve been fighting all my life for the things I believe in. It’s what I live for.”