Labor leaders, government officials, and educators last week mourned the death of Sandra Feldman, who headed the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union until cancer forced her into retirement in 2004. She died Sept. 18 at the age of 65.
The former president of the American Federation of Teachers led the 1.3 million-member union for seven years, as it played an influential role in shaping the federal No Child Left Behind Act and grew by thousands of teachers, teachers’ aides, and health-care and government workers. She succeeded the legendary Albert F. Shanker, whom she had also followed as the president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, which is the nation’s largest local teachers’ union.
Ms. Feldman was the president of the city union for 11 years before she was elected to lead the national union in May 1997—the first woman to hold the AFT’s top post since 1930. She took over as dissatisfaction with urban schools was intensifying, and she was a staunch champion of educational equality for the poor and minority children who are heavily enrolled in those schools.
“Sandy’s death is a great loss for the AFT personally and professionally and for the children of our nation,” AFT President Edward J. McElroy said in a statement. “Presidents, members of Congress, educators, and business leaders relied on her expertise and ideas to help forge their own opinions about how to help those who needed it most.”
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who consulted with Ms. Feldman on the No Child Left Behind Act he helped craft with the Bush administration in 2001, praised her in a statement as “one of the greatest and most effective champions the nation has ever had for equal educational opportunity for all children.”
A native of Brooklyn, Ms. Feldman grew up in straitened circumstances. During her college years she was drawn into the civil rights movement.
After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English, she taught 2nd and 3rd grade in a New York City public school. After three years at Public School 34, during which she led the faculty in organizing a chapter of the United Federation of Teachers, she took a job as a field representative for the union.
Ms. Feldman was considered an expert on urban education and also pushed hard for more and better early-childhood education, which she believed would help children succeed in school.
“If she had her druthers, this nation would have provided kids some type of educational experience all the way down to age 3,” said Nat LaCour, the secretary-treasurer of the AFT.
As a start, she proposed a program called Kindergarten-Plus that would provide learning opportunities for academically at-risk children in the summers before and after they attend kindergarten. New Mexico has adopted the program, and it is under consideration in several other states. (“Ahead of Their Class,” Aug. 31, 2005)
Ms. Feldman also worked to merge the AFT with the now 2.7-million member National Education Association. The smaller union approved the change, but the merger failed at the NEA’s national convention in 1998, despite the support of the larger organization’s national leaders.
Bob Chase, who served as the president of the NEA from 1996 to 2002, said he and Ms. Feldman cemented a friendship during that time and could disagree without ill will.
“She was an incredibly passionate person,” especially about the well-being of children, “which showed itself on a day-to-day basis,” Mr. Chase said.
In addition to leading the AFT, Ms. Feldman served as a vice president of Education International, a worldwide umbrella group of teachers’ unions, and as a member of the executive committee of the AFL-CIO.
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2005 edition of Education Week as Death of Feldman, AFT’s Former President, Mourned