Teaching Profession

Contract For Change

Some see her as a hard-nosed union boss. But as Sandra Feldman takes the helm of the AFT, her record in New York City suggests she’s a reformer bent on improving schools for teachers and children alike.
By Ann Bradley — November 01, 1997 22 min read

Sandra Feldman surveys the playground at P.S. 97 in the Baychester section of the Bronx, where dozens of young children with new backpacks and quietly contained energy are lining up for the first day of another school year. More than 50 years ago, Feldman was in their place, starting kindergarten. She can still vividly remember that day. “Walking into that kindergarten room, it was like a place of many mysteries and miracles,” she says. “One section had this little house. That made the biggest impression on me because I lived in a chaotic home. This was a little house like you saw in books, with a kitchen and a sitting area. There was a music area, with the teacher’s piano and cymbals.”

There were no such luxuries in the city-owned slum in Brooklyn’s Coney Island where Feldman lived with her father, a milkman, her mother, who sometimes worked in a bakery, and a brother and sister. The family was crammed into three rooms of a duplex occupied by four families--all sharing one bathroom. Later, when Feldman was 12, they moved into a low-rise brick housing project.

As president of the United Federation of Teachers, Sandra Feldman is one of New York’s most influential labor leaders.

Feldman’s ticket out of poverty was public education, and for the past three decades, she’s been trying to return the favor: first as a classroom teacher; then as a leader of her local teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers; and now as president of both the local and its national parent, the American Federation of Teachers. Schools are still Feldman’s favorite places. And on this day, the UFT president, five months into her tenure as head of the AFT, is beaming in the September sunshine. She is here to inspect the new “transportable” classrooms that have been erected on P.S. 97’s blacktop and at schools citywide.

The new classrooms are the fruit of the UFT’s vigorous efforts to alleviate overcrowding. Here in New York City’s District 11, the union fought a lengthy battle to reduce class size, part of a campaign that resulted last fall in a blizzard of 17,000 grievances over the issue, 60 percent of which the union won.

Those complaints, combined with the city’s upcoming mayoral election and healthier city and state budgets, produced the transportables. They boast sparkling bathrooms for each class, air conditioning, intercoms, and computer outlets. But as Feldman tours the school--trailed by an entourage of reporters, camera crews, administrators, and union officials--she never lets up the pressure.

“Thank goodness for elections,” she says as she passes through the cafeteria. “If it were not an election year, these little kids would be in here.”

“Children shouldn’t have to go to school in these transportables out in the schoolyard,” she adds with characteristic bluntness. “They should have brick-and-mortar buildings.” Then, with the television cameras still rolling, she plugs--as she will all morning--an upcoming state bond issue that could funnel about $1 billion to New York City for school construction.

Despite the progress she sees at P.S. 97, Feldman is dismayed by the condition of a piano she finds in a high-ceilinged kindergarten classroom. The instrument, with broken ivories, looks like it hasn’t been played in years. As the media mill around, she asks a UFT representative to find a replacement for the neglected upright. The piano, Feldman says, should be “the center of the world in kindergarten.”

Urban schools, and the children who attend them, are the center of Feldman’s world. But she takes the helm of the 950,000-member American Federation of Teachers as dissatisfaction with urban schools is reaching unprecedented heights. And big-city teachers’ unions, which make up the bulk of the AFT’s membership, are feeling the heat. Across the nation, state and local officials are closing low-performing schools and reopening them with new teachers and principals. In Milwaukee and Cleveland, the teachers’ unions are fighting voucher programs. In Chicago, radical governance reforms have quieted the once-mighty Chicago Teachers Union. And in Philadelphia, the AFT affiliate is at war with the superintendent and losing the public relations battle in the process.

Although Feldman has no children of her own, she seems to consider New York City’s 1 million-plus students her family.

When the AFT executive council tapped the 57-year-old Feldman to succeed the late Albert Shanker in May, she came out swinging. In July, during her first major address to members as AFT president, she urged union leaders to help close and redesign failing schools--and to negotiate procedures for doing so. “Put very simply and most starkly,” Feldman said, “I propose that we do not seek to defend or perpetuate failing schools to which we would not send our own children.”

At the same time, Feldman believes districts are wrong to try to fix such schools by dismissing entire faculties and starting over from scratch without teacher input. “In most cases, they do it crudely--getting rid of teachers instead of bad practices,” she wrote in September in the union’s “Where We Stand” column, which appears in many newspapers and magazines. “This strategy, which goes by the ugly name of reconstitution, offers a simplistic response to a complicated problem.”

In her national debut, a September 9 speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Feldman condemned the widespread practice of “social promotion.” As part of the AFT’s ongoing campaign for higher academic standards, she released a report describing grade-promotion policies across the nation and calling for early intervention for children falling behind in school.

There has never been any question about whether Feldman was up to the AFT job. As president of the 120,000-member United Federation of Teachers, she heads the largest local union affiliate of any kind in the world, with some 300 full-time staff and hundreds of part-time workers. The UFT is a major player in both local and state politics, dipping each election into the richest war chest in Albany to hand out campaign contributions to favored candidates. In her 11 years as UFT president, Feldman has gone up against five New York City schools chancellors, three mayors, and two governors.

Still, any assessment of Feldman is bound to begin with comparisons to Shanker. By the end of his life, the late AFT president had become a respected education statesman. But his milieu tended to be education and labor conferences--both in this country and abroad--not the classroom. Before assuming national office, Feldman visited schools as often as four times a week. Like Shanker, who relished comparing education systems around the world, Feldman talks a lot about making American schools internationally competitive. But while Shanker was inclined to praise a country’s rigorous exam system, Feldman’s more apt to applaud its preschools. Her unmistakable passion is children--especially poor children.

Although Feldman has no children of her own, she seems to consider New York City’s 1 million-plus students her family. “These are our kids, and they are wonderful and totally misunderstood and misconstrued,” she says on the Bronx school’s blacktop. “There’s a feeling out in the land about inner-city environments, that the kids are different. And they’re not. They’re just kids.”

Urban schools and the children who attend them, are the center of Feldman’s world.

It’s of course too soon to know whether Feldman will earn the kind of national respect that Shanker enjoyed toward the end of his life. But her track record at the UFT offers a hint of the kind of leadership she will bring to the AFT. And that evidence shows she has been more of a reformer than a traditionalist.

The UFT, for example, long ago began experimenting with some of the reforms that the leadership of the National Education Association is just now asking affiliates to try. Since 1988, the UFT has sponsored a voluntary peer-intervention program for teachers experiencing difficulty. The UFT also took early responsibility for teachers’ professional development, launching school-based Teacher Centers. And working with local colleges and universities, the union offers an array of courses and workshops, some leading to master’s degrees. Leaders of teachers’ unions from across the country regularly visit the city to check out school-level reforms and to consult David Sherman, the UFT’s respected vice president for education programs.

When Feldman advocates closing and redesigning failing schools, she speaks from experience. In the preamble to the UFT’s 200-page contract, the school board and the union agree to work together to close and restructure bad schools. The document contains detailed provisions for how to staff these new schools. Already the union has cooperated in the outright closure or redesign of dozens of schools, spurred in part by increased pressure from the state to improve the city’s worst.

The contract, approved last year, also includes a provision that allows schools to sidestep seniority hiring requirements that most unions hold sacred. If 75 percent of a faculty agrees, any school in the city can form a committee to hire teachers for open positions. The committee is free to hire the candidate it determines is best for the school, regardless of his or her seniority. This is a radical change. In the past, schools were required to hire the applicant with the most seniority. A long-standing provision of most teacher union contracts, seniority rules reward teachers for their years of service but often prevent schools from building a compatible faculty.

The union first approved a limited school-based staffing program in 1994 to give some hiring flexibility to the small high schools that have proliferated in the city. For these schools to work, faculties must share a common vision; they can’t just be thrown together by a factory system that regards teachers as interchangeable cogs. Still, the change didn’t come without stiff opposition.

Ann Lieberman, a Stanford University scholar, says Feldman’s ‘genius’ has been to make changes without alienating her membership.

“She knew when we started that she was going to get a lot of grief from teachers in the large schools,” recalls Beth Lief, president of New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit organization that has sponsored the creation of 45 small schools in the city. Feldman arranged for Lief to meet with local union leaders to “set the record straight” on staffing and other issues and to answer questions about the new schools, including charges that they would divert resources from traditional schools. Lief uses the word “gutsy” to describe Feldman, who sits on New Visions’ board of directors. “She never once raised the contract as a barrier,” Lief says. “Never once.”

Ann Lieberman, a Stanford University visiting scholar with close ties to the AFT and the NEA, says Feldman’s “genius” has been to achieve such changes without alienating her membership. “Bringing these new schools to life flies in the face of all these bargaining agreements they fought for for years,” Lieberman says. “It took a progressive, forward-thinking union leader to see this was a good thing.”

Still, some would like to see the UFT go further. Peter Steinberg, a retired high school teacher who now works for New Visions, wants the union to spread the word about successful techniques the small schools have developed. As a union chapter leader at Louis Brandeis High School in Manhattan, he frequently opposed the positions of Feldman and the Unity Caucus, the dominant faction in the UFT. “A lot of the caucus is opposed to serious educational change and progressive change,” he complains. “She has always been fearful of moving too far out in front of the membership and cognizant of the need to move them along in the process.”

Although Feldman gets credit for negotiating greater flexibility for schools, she earns demerits from many New Yorkers for a contract provision that frees city teachers from a number of “administrative duties,” such as overseeing homerooms and monitoring cafeterias, schoolyards, hallways, and study halls. The idea is for teachers to spend their time on professional pursuits and leave potty patrol to others. The provision is widely regarded as a sweetener designed to make up for two years with no raises. But Feldman defends the change, saying it will provide additional time for teachers to collaborate. So controversial was the provision that the school board delayed its implementation for a year to plan the transition. Teachers in half the city’s 1,119 schools voted to continue doing some of the jobs; still, the school board has spent $70 million to hire aides.

When she advocates closing failing schools and opening them anew, Feldman speaks from experience.

Raymond Domanico, executive director of the Public Education Association, a 100-year-old research and advocacy group in the city, says the change has been “a negative for her leadership” and “of great concern to parents.” During Feldman’s tenure, he complains, the UFT’s chapter chairs--the union’s elected representatives in each school-- have gained almost as much power as principals.

UFT leaders also haven’t moved decisively enough on the perennial problem of bad teachers. The union’s peer-intervention program has worked with just 400 teachers in nine years, only 20 percent of whom actually left teaching.

Of course, when it comes to bad teachers, there’s plenty of blame to go around. The central board of education has hired thousands of uncertified teachers to staff the city’s schools. Feldman puts the current number somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000, and she’s backing the district’s move to dismiss some 1,000 who failed a required state exam. These disgruntled teachers have formed an opposition caucus within the UFT that periodically pickets outside union meetings. Feldman, who can hardly support the teachers and be a credible voice for higher standards, calls the caucus “a badge of honor.”

Michael Shulman, who unsuccessfully challenged Feldman in this year’s UFT presidential election, argues that these teachers should be “grandfathered in” because most have received satisfactory ratings from their principals. A teacher at Fort Hamilton High School in the Bronx, Shulman faults Feldman for “failing on all counts” to secure New York teachers competitive salaries and to ameliorate their often dismal working conditions. His New Action Caucus holds seven of the 89 seats on the UFT’s executive committee.

Although Feldman easily won reelection to a two-year term in 1995, her members rejected a contract agreement that year for the first time in the union’s history. New Action, Shulman says, helped torpedo the five-year pact, distributing 55,000 leaflets blasting its two-year pay freeze. Although the rejection was a blow to Feldman, teachers eventually approved an agreement that gives them raises in the last three years of the pact. By the end of the contract period, veteran teachers will earn top pay of $70,000 a year, a hefty sum but still far below peak pay for teachers in the surrounding suburbs, where scales top out at around $85,000.

And these suburban teachers don’t have to put up with crumbling plaster, rotting window frames, and leaky roofs--all typical features of the buildings that house New York City schoolchildren. In 1994, the UFT sued the city over the pathetic state of its public schools. City officials, the union charged, had failed to maintain a healthy and safe learning environment. The union expects a favorable ruling in that case any day. In anticipation, the UFT communications department has set up a press room decorated with poster-sized black-and-white photos of the decrepit conditions.

Feldman says the salary disparities are less easily remedied. The problem, she has long complained, is that New York City teachers are locked into “pattern bargaining” with other municipal employee unions, a legacy of the city’s near-bankruptcy in the 1970s. As a result, teachers’ fortunes rise and fall with those of other city workers, like police and firefighters.

This issue was at the root of an uproar late this summer over a pension bill pushed by the UFT and approved by state lawmakers. The measure would have allowed certain teachers to purchase an enhanced pension benefit--breaking a pattern the city set with its other unions. Governor George Pataki vetoed the measure, which was opposed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the board of education. They complained that the bill would have encouraged teachers to retire early and driven up costs, which the union disputes.

Never a patient person, Feldman has even less time to waste now that she has two full-time jobs.

Even though the New York media misreported the details of the complicated bill, the tone of the coverage underscored how little sympathy exists for the UFT. “A boondoggle for the powerful teachers’ union,” scolded the New York Times. The Daily News called the bill “a rotten apple for the teachers” and said Feldman “bullied legislators for this pension giveaway.”

Feldman, a tall, well-dressed woman with an intermittent New York accent, is no bully. She is, however, an effective advocate, most often described as smart and tough. Despite her lifelong love of education, she did not set out to become a teacher. As an English major at Brooklyn College in the 1960s, she got swept up in the civil rights movement and was arrested during the Route 40 Freedom Rides and other protests. Hoping to become a writer, she took up free-lance editing. “I decided to try teaching,” she explains candidly, “because I had to go to work.”

Once she was installed at Manhattan’s P.S. 34, though, Feldman’s activist bent found a new outlet. She organized a union chapter at the elementary school and started going to UFT meetings. “It was a very exciting time,” she recalls. “There were strikes and demonstrations and all the growing pains of a union.”

Before long, Shanker invited her to apply for a job as a UFT field representative, which she did, ending her teaching career after three years in the classroom. As one of only four full-time UFT staffers, Feldman found herself in the thick of the bitter 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike, which pitted the union against black community activists fighting for local control of schools.

In 1983, after a stint as UFT executive director, Feldman was elected union secretary. Three years later, she was elected president when Shanker stepped aside to concentrate full time on running the AFT.

Although the two were indisputably close, Feldman was not Shanker’s hand-picked successor, according to Rachelle Horowitz, a consultant to the AFT and a personal friend of Feldman’s. “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.”

Named this spring to fill out Shanker’s term, Feldman will face her first AFT presidential election next summer and is expected to run unopposed. She is the first woman to hold the job since 1930.

Feldman will face her first presidential election next year and is expected to run unopposed. She is the first woman president since 1930.

Shanker’s influence on Feldman spilled over into her personal tastes. Her interest in African art, for example, was shaped by Shanker and Bayard Rustin, the civil rights leader who organized the 1963 March on Washington. And like Shanker, Feldman enjoys good restaurants, collects antiques, listens to jazz, and is an avid reader. She also likes to shop. “She’s a good, fast shopper,” Horowitz says. “She can whiz through, take a look, and try it on.”

Never patient, Feldman has even less time to waste now that she’s holding down two jobs. She’s a regular on 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. When in New York, she travels the city in a black Buick Park Avenue with a driver, often conducting business on the car phone.

UFT staffers say they’ve seen little change in their boss since she took on the AFT duties in May. Communications Director Susan Amlung 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.”

Anything less would be unacceptable, Feldman says. “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. We have tremendous participation and active involvement in the union. You’ve got to meet their standards to be their leader.”

When Feldman stepped into the AFT job, much of her agenda was already spelled out for her. Of course, as president of the AFT’s most powerful local, Feldman was instrumental in crafting much of that agenda: raising standards of conduct and achievement for students, getting schools to adopt proven programs, and, now, closing failing schools. What she can contribute to that work, she says, is “hands-on, really deep knowledge of how schools work and what needs to be done for them.”

“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 teachers don’t need, she believes, is pointless conflict. She points to Philadelphia, where the AFT affiliate has been battling with superintendent David Hornbeck over his plan for closing poor schools. Feldman has traveled to Philadelphia to meet with local union leaders and Mayor Edward Rendell. She has also visited Chicago to discuss the same sensitive issue. And she has been to Cincinnati to give her support and encouragement to the reform-oriented AFT affiliate there.

“She 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, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers and an AFT vice president. “She’s informal and down-to-earth. You can feel free to tell her what you think.”

What teachers don’t need, Feldman believes, is pointless conflict.

Adam Urbanski, head of the AFT affiliate in Rochester, New York, and another risk-taking AFT vice president, praises Feldman as a leader who is “inordinately careful not to abuse her influence.” (Urbanski says Feldman once advised him that it was counterproductive for the president of a local affiliate to travel much. He didn’t heed her advice.)

The fact that Feldman has taken the helm of the AFT with a blueprint already in place, Urbanski says, doesn’t mean she won’t make her own mark. “Just because we have identified the Ten Commandments doesn’t mean there’s nothing for a priest to do,” he 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 Mills is raising the academic bar students have to clear 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.

Meanwhile, in New York City, top union officials are working with District 2 in Manhattan and a handful of other community districts that have embraced the work of New Standards, a private, nonprofit partnership that has created assessments geared to national benchmarks. 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.

Feldman knows that navigating the move to higher standards won’t be easy. New York educators come from all points of the political spectrum and have very different ideas about what a standard should look like. “A lot of the standards work being done is basically everybody feeling their way to higher standards,” she says. “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.”

Although Feldman likes to define her agenda primarily in positive terms, she is adamantly against some proposed reforms. Not surprisingly, these include choice and charter schools if, as she puts it, 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, president of the National Education Association--Feldman rises early to appear on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal with Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson, a voucher advocate. The GOP governor is in Washington on a victory tour, touting the passage of a package of tax credits and deductions he says will give Minnesotans greater choice in education. In his comments this morning, 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.

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

Sandra Feldman

Feldman fires back. The nation must educate 50 million schoolchildren, she says. “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,” the governor declares at another point, “has been driven by competition and driving for quality. The truth is, what the teachers’ union wants is a continuation of the monopoly.” The debate heats up, with Feldman telling Carlson that he seems like “an angry man” and the governor complaining that all public educators have been asking for for 40 years is time and money.

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 boarding school in Connecticut. Feldman missed a similar opportunity when her mother rejected teachers’ recommendations that she 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 summer morning, emerges with a smile for Carlson, a crack about Minnesota’s weather, and a handshake.

“My adrenaline starts working,” she explains a few minutes later 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.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as Contract For Change

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