New AFT Leader Vows to Bring Down NCLB Law

By Vaishali Honawar — July 14, 2008 5 min read
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Union Roots

Randi Weingarten, the new president of the American Federation of Teachers, declared war on the No Child Left Behind Act in her first speech to delegates during the union’s biennial convention, saying it has become, for many members, “a four-letter word.”

Ms. Weingarten, who is expected to become a leading voice as the federal law comes up for reauthorization, said “overhauling” it would be the aft’s most urgent priority.

See Also

For more on this topic, see our blog NEA & AFT: Live From the Conventions.

“NCLB has outlived whatever usefulness it ever had. Conceived by accountants, drafted by lawyers, and distorted by ideologues, it is too badly broken to be fixed,” she said a day after union delegates voted to do away with the current law and build new legislation based on the previous Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

No Child Left Behind, the latest version of the ESEA, holds schools accountable for their students’ academic progress as measured by annual tests. The bipartisan law, signed by President Bush in 2002, is unpopular with many teachers.

“What we need,” Ms. Weingarten said, “is a new vision of schools for the 21st century, a vision that truly commits America to closing the achievement gap once and for all—and the accountability to ensure this happens.”

Ms. Weingarten, who succeeds Edward J. McElroy as president of the 1.4 million-member union, was elected unopposed, along with Antonia Cortese, the new secretary-treasurer, and Lorretta Johnson, the executive vice president. Ms. Johnson becomes the first paraprofessional union leader to hold one of the top three posts in the aft. Ms. Weingarten will continue to lead the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City affiliate, as did her predecessors, Albert Shanker and Sandra Feldman.

The election of Ms. Weingarten, Ms. Cortese, and Ms. Johnson during the July 11-14 convention is also a landmark in trade-union history because this is the first time a major union will be led by three women. Two of the top three elected officials in the National Education Association are also women.

Ms. Weingarten’s speech could be an early indicator that there will be significant differences between the AFT and its larger counterpart, the 3.2 million-strong NEA, which just this month came up with a plan to fix the federal education law. Since a proposed merger that fell through in 1998, the two unions have drifted further and further apart.

In her speech, the new president also called for a federal law that promotes community schools to serve needy children that provide all the services and activities they and their families need.

“Imagine schools that are open all day and offer after-school and evening recreational activities and homework assistance ... and suppose the schools included child care and dental, medical and counseling clinics, or other services the community needs,” Ms. Weingarten said. “For example, they might offer neighborhood residents English language instruction, GED programs, or legal assistance.”

She also laid out her vision for a federal law that exposes every child to a rich core curriculum, that assures teacher quality by providing teachers competitive salaries in districts that offer professional compensation models that support great teachers, and that promotes professional development embedded in the job, mentoring for new teachers, and peer coaching for those teachers who are struggling.

Union Roots

Ms. Weingarten, a lawyer who worked early in her career on Wall Street, also spoke of her own motivations as a unionist: a father who was laid off from his job as an electrical engineer. “I never forgot how he came home, hurt and humiliated, tears in his eyes.”

She also recalled her mother, a teacher in Nyack, N.Y., who worked hard and for long hours. When teachers in her mother’s school district went on strike, she said, “I saw my mother—and the entire teaching profession—very differently. ... I’ll never forget how her colleagues—most of whom were women—stood by each other for seven weeks until they won a fair agreement,” Ms. Weingarten said.

Delegates voted in favor of a resolution urging affiliates to consider engaging in peer review and assistance.

Although the AFT’s Toledo affiliate 27 years ago pioneered peer review and assistance, in which teachers mentor and evaluate each other, few other locals have adopted it since.

Fran Lawrence, the local’s president, said that teachers who have been in the program in her Ohio district have strongly favored it.

“Nine out of 10 of our members for 27 years have supported peer review and assistance: That’s solidarity,” she said, responding to one delegate’s concern that asking senior teachers to evaluate other teachers would create divisions among educators.

For example, Traci Castro, a delegate from Pittsburgh, said she supports the peer assistance, or mentoring, component, but “I have a problem that expert teachers would have the power to say if someone is qualified. If we want to build solidarity, we cannot create divisions between fellow teachers.”

Ms. Weingarten acknowledged that for those who haven’t tried peer review, “it’s scary.”

“It feels like we are abdicating the due process role,” she said, adding, however, that this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Saying she is tired of principals throwing out members, she added, “What this resolution says is let’s ... give our teachers assistance and let’s make sure we take back our profession.”

Delegates also agreed to a dues increase, with part of it going to the Solidarity Fund that fights local efforts to cut education funding and teacher benefits. Members will pay $15.35 monthly to the national union instead of $14.70, starting in September, and the amount will rise to $16 the following September.

Presidential Politics

Delegates got a visit, in person, from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who called on them to get out the vote for Barack Obama, her former rival and the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate.

Sen. Clinton warned against four more years of Republican rule. “There is so much at stake in this election. ... Making this victory happen will require AFT, 1.4 million strong,” said the senator from New York, who was the union’s first choice for president before she pulled out of the race.

Sen. Obama, who appeared live via satellite from San Diego, spoke — as he did to the NEA — about his support for fixing the “broken promises of NCLB,” as well as in favor of performance pay and charter schools. Some AFT locals have adopted performance-pay plans.

“I applaud AFT for your leadership in representing charter school teachers and support staff. ... We know well-designed public charter schools have a lot to offer,” the Illinois senator said. Under Ms. Weingarten, the UFT has opened two charter schools in New York City.

A version of this article appeared in the July 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as New AFT Leader Vows to Bring Down NCLB Law


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