Teaching Profession

AFT Head Randi Weingarten to Conservatives: Stop Politicizing Education and Let Teachers Teach

By Madeline Will — July 18, 2022 9 min read
Randi Weingarten speaks during March for Our Lives 2022 on June 11, 2022 in Washington, DC.
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Randi Weingarten is fed up with the attacks on her, her union, and the teaching profession.

The president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest national teachers’ union, spent a large portion of her keynote speech last week decrying conservative talking points against educators and teachers’ unions. Teachers have found themselves in the center of debates over how schools should handle conversations and lessons on race and racism, students’ gender identity and pronouns, and other cultural lightning rods.

“Why are our opponents going Defcon 1, with sleazy lies about ‘grooming’ and calling teachers ‘pedophiles’? Why are Fox News and some GOP officials spreading these conspiracies and other hateful ideas, which social media stokes and amplifies?” Weingarten said, as screenshots of inflammatory tweets and headlines appeared on the screen behind her. “Because the extremists—the anti-public schools crowd, the anti-union crowd, the privatizers, the haters—they see the importance of public schooling as a unifying American value, and that Americans value educators. So the extremists plot to change that.”

More than 2,000 union delegates were meeting in Boston for the AFT’s convention at the same time some of Weingarten’s most vocal critics—Moms for Liberty—were having their first ever national summit in Tampa, Fla. Moms for Liberty is a national advocacy group of mostly conservative parents that has battled mask mandates in school, sought to ban books on LGBTQ issues or gender identity, and opposed classroom discussions on racial discrimination. The group’s leaders have blamed Weingarten for her role in school closures and mask mandates.

In her speech, Weingarten said parents and educators must be partners—and pointed to April polling by NPR and Ipsos that found that 88 percent of parents of school-aged children said their child’s teacher has done the best they can, given the circumstances around the pandemic. “Extremist politicians” are trying to drive a wedge between parents and teachers, she said, adding that the AFT is focused on investing in schools and students.

The union is gearing up for a fight in the midterm elections, where education and the related cultural debates will likely be a big issue for voters. In May, AFT and the Democratic firm Hart Research polled 1,758 voters from battleground states and found that just 44 percent said they have confidence in teachers’ unions to have the right ideas for public schools. Sixty-two percent said they had confidence in teachers, and 56 percent pointed to parent organizations.

When asked whether they’d trust teachers or a group of conservative parents to be right during an education disagreement, 40 percent of respondents said they’d have more confidence in teachers, while 36 percent said they’d trust the conservative parent group. When the choice was between teachers and conservative politicians, voters were more likely to trust teachers—58 percent said they’d have more confidence in teachers, compared to 24 percent who’d have more confidence in conservative politicians.

Meanwhile, a recent Democrats for Education Reform poll found that voters think politicians from both parties are too focused on race and gender issues in education and are not prioritizing learning recovery.

First lady Jill Biden and several Democratic members of Congress, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Ed Markey, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, also addressed the AFT delegates during their convention. So did Nathan Monell, the executive director of the National Parent Teacher Association, who called for collaboration and unity and said that “the loudest voices, the harshest voices, and the most divisive voices” do not represent the majority of parents.

A conversation with Weingarten

Weingarten, who was re-elected for an eighth two-year term last week after running unopposed, sat down with Education Week to discuss the effects of legislation restricting what teachers can do and say, and what she sees as “indoctrination” by conservatives. This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.

AFT delegates adopted a report on teacher shortages and policy recommendations. I’m curious your thoughts about certification solutions like in Arizona, which just made it so people can teach without a bachelor’s degree.

It’s very dangerous. It’s a good and dangerous example of the disrespect for knowledge in this country. They would never, ever do this about airline pilots. They would never do this about engineers. They would never do this about doctors. They would never do this about lawyers. But frankly, they are fearful about teachers actually teaching critical thinking, actually having knowledge. It’s antithetical to having an educated citizenry.

What you’re seeing is the hints of indoctrination on the right-wing—that instead of actually having teachers who have the knowledge and skills and the conditions that they need to teach and the pay that benefits them, they’re just trying to deal with having a warm body in the room. And it’s just terrible for kids. They want some kids to have a decent education, but not all kids.

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Image of staffing shortages.

They do not care about children’s knowledge if they are watering down credentialing so that you do not have people who know their content, know how to teach. That has always been signified by a college diploma, and they would never do it in the professions or the occupations they thought were important. It shows you why they don’t think teaching is important. And it’s another indication of the culture war.

Speaking of the culture war, you said in your keynote speech that AFT has a legal defense fund for any teacher who’s disciplined for teaching the truth. Have you had to use that?

Very rarely. There are some cases where a couple of educators have said—I’m not going to talk about the cases, [but] they said they think they have been disciplined because of this. But this is what we’ve really seen: These laws are intended to chill speech, and to scare people, and to create fear. What we have seen throughout the country is that many teachers are saying, “I don’t know how to answer a child’s question anymore.”

In many instances in Texas and Florida and other places, [teachers] have changed their curriculum to comply with laws, which means they are not teaching the way they want to teach. ... The other thing we’re seeing though is at the same time this is happening, the right wing is trying to create curriculum that indoctrinates kids. [Editor’s note: Weingarten later cited Hillsdale College’s 1776 curriculum on history and civics as an example.] Frankly, it feels to me like these laws should be stopping that as well, but they’re trying to install these curriculum in schools. So they’re not letting people teach labor history, but they want people to teach, quote, “freedom.”

One of the most important things I said this week is: Let’s really focus on who’s being political here and who isn’t. I know we engage in elections, and you have to engage in elections—in most of America, school boards are run by leaders who get elected. Elections matter, but on a day-to-day basis in schools, what educators are trying to do, and what they’re saying, is: Invest in the basics. Let us make sure that kids can learn reading, let us meet their social-emotional and academic needs. Let’s make sure they have pathways after high school. Let’s have the things that they enjoy, like play and sports and music and art, and let’s teach the other essentials, including critical thinking.

What the other side is doing, like [Govs.] DeSantis and Abbott—they’re just making everything political. They’re thwarting us from teaching kids. They’re stopping us from teaching honest history. They’re trying to say that we shouldn’t see all kids. And what they’re not doing is they’re not giving us the resources and the conditions we need to actually help kids recover from a pandemic and then accelerating learning. They are playing politics.

These folks who are doing their so-called anti-woke stuff—where’s their work on helping us with reading? Where’s their work with helping us on [career and technical education]? Where’s their work with helping us on the [teacher] shortage?

Look what Fox did. They didn’t read [my] freaking speech. Their agenda is about fear and division. That is not what public education in America is about.

How do you respond to critics who ask: Why isn’t every resolution from this convention focused on what’s happening in school buildings instead of politics?

Well, because AFT is about democracy too, and teachers live in democracy. ... We engage in our democracy, and we do it publicly and transparently. We don’t smear. We don’t demean. We make the case about why elections matter and why people who are gonna help better the lives of people matter. But if you look at our resolutions, we spend as much time on the issues that matter to the day-to-day life of a school teacher and a college professor and a nurse as we spend on other things.

Gun violence matters. People don’t want to be armed—they want guns off the street, they want guns out of schools. The only way to actually get that done is to change laws. Is that a safety condition? Is that an educational condition? Or is that what we have to do in the aftermath of elections? But I don’t think the Koch brothers had the kind of conversation that we had about [assessments] and what they mean, or about community schools, or about how to solve the shortage.

You know what that question reminds me of? Teachers should be seen and not heard. They should just do what we tell them to do, as opposed to: They should have a voice in this.

Elementary teachers in one Florida school district reported that they were discouraged from displaying pictures of their same-sex partner on their desk or wearing rainbow items of clothing, although the state has since clarified that the law does not restrict the display of personal photos. Are you worried we’re going to see teachers’ personal lives being censored in states with laws restricting how LGBTQ issues are addressed in schools?

Yes, I’m totally worried about it. If I was in a heterosexual couple, and my kid had a bat mitzvah, and I had a picture of my family with the kid at the bat mitzvah with a tallit on, and somebody said, “take that picture down,” people would be screaming bloody murder. Because you are saying that the state is telling me how to define the free exercise of religion.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—it’s in the declaration of freaking independence. How do you say to somebody, you must take down a picture of somebody you’re close with?

Is there room for litigation there?

People are looking at it. People are looking at it. I don’t want anybody to have to be invisible about who they are, and nobody should want anybody to be invisible about who they are. I want people to be able to show who they are based upon their religion, based upon their sex, based upon their gender identity. They have an inalienable right under the [U.S.] Constitution to show who they are.

And what is happening is because these folks think it is politically in their interest, they want to take away an inalienable right of people they think should have less power than they have. It’s going back to a dark age that some people have rights and other people don’t.

In your speech, you mentioned Willie Carver, the Kentucky teacher of the year who left the profession because of the attack on LGBTQ rights. Are you worried we’re going to see more LGBTQ teachers, more teachers of color leave?

We are already. The Minnesota teacher of the year, [who is Somali American], left. The Kentucky teacher of the year left. But I don’t think it’s simply people who have been historically discriminated against. I think you’re going to see more women leave the profession. You’re gonna see people who are just being bullied because somebody doesn’t like what they say or who they are.

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