To those who knew him, Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, represented the future of teacher unionism: a progressive leader who cared as deeply about the schools his teachers worked for as he did his constituents.
Mr. Mooney, who was considered by many to be a front-runner for one of the top spots in the American Federation of Teachers, died of a heart attack Dec. 3. He was 52.
Also an AFT vice president and a former president of the union’s Cincinnati local, he carried a deep conviction that unions need to be part of school reform to be effective, colleagues say. At the same time, he strongly opposed charter schools and vouchers, which, he believed, would suck money away from public schools.
Mr. Mooney was an effective leader who stayed close to the ground, AFT President Edward J. McElroy said last week. “He was in touch with his members, knew what they were thinking and discussing, so when you spoke to Tom it was like speaking with a group of rank-and-file members,” he added.
Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Teachers Association in New York, remembered a man with all the right attributes to become an effective national leader.
“There was absolutely no question that his voice would be among the top and most important voices of union reformers in the future,” said Mr. Urbanski, whom Mr. Mooney joined in founding the Teacher Union Reform Network of AFT & NEA Locals, or TURN, a group of progressive union leaders from around the country.
Transforming the System
Mr. Mooney graduated from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, before becoming a high school government teacher in Cincinnati in 1974. After a 21-year stint as the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, during which he worked with the administration to establish a teacher-evaluation system that expects higher levels of performance from experienced teachers, Mr. Mooney was elected to lead the Ohio Federation of Teachers in 2000.
Despite what appeared to be a growing sentiment against progressive union leaders in the past few years, Mr. Mooney continued to push the limits of union-administration collaboration. He helped implement the tasks of the Educator Standards Board in Ohio, made up mostly of practicing classroom teachers, which recommends statewide standards for educators.
Five years ago, along with other public school supporters, he sued the state of Ohio, charging that its charter school law was unconstitutional. He stuck to that conviction even after the Ohio Supreme Court, in October, upheld the law.
“You never had a boring day around Tom. We were always working to keep up with his thought process,” said Darold Johnson, the OFT’s legislative and political-action director.
Friends remembered a man fiercely proud of his Irish heritage, who loved good food and Irish whiskey. Those who crossed swords with him at work found him a formidable yet likable adversary.
“Tom was a fierce critic of charter schools and school vouchers, both policies that we believe in and encourage,” Terry Ryan, the vice president for Ohio programs and policy for the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, wrote in the group’s newsletter. “We debated these issues with him many times. … Never, however, did these debates and disagreements become personal.”
In an interview for the PBS video “Only a Teacher,” Mr. Mooney articulated his vision for the future.
“What many [unions] are doing is evolving into a more professional model, where we have to realize that it’s not good enough to be, you know, limiting the power of the bureaucracy; we have to transform ... the system,” he said. “Public schools won’t survive, at least in urban areas, unless we really make some radical changes. We have to be in the forefront of making those changes.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as Tom Mooney, President of Ohio Teachers’ Union, Dies