If unions are going to be challenged to consider uncomfortable ideas like reforms to teacher evaluation and pay, then the Obama administration must make good on its promise to involve unions in any school reforms, Randi Weingarten said this afternoon at the American Federation of Teachers’ professional-issues conference in Washington.
In other words, the AFT president’s speech was a bit of the inverse of EdSec Duncan’s recent remarks to the National Education Association.
“Obama said he wants to work with us, not work us over,” Weingarten said. “We’re taking President Obama and Secretary Duncan at their word.”
AFT members wore buttons saying, “With us, not to us,” an echo of the promises that Obama made on the campaign trail and Duncan has reiterated in recent months.
Teachers’ unions, Weingarten added, must not just react to policy but create and shape it. She gave a few more details about the AFT’s Innovation Fund, saying that applications have proposed such ideas as alternative compensation plans, new pathways into the profession, new teacher-evaluation systems, and collaborative partnerships with parents and community groups to address wraparound services.
She also had this dig at those who would seek to impose reforms without teachers’ input:
“I hope you’re as outraged as I am when our critics say that unions are part of the problem, not the solution; that we are only in it for ourselves; that we represent adults against kids; and that we are a selfish special interest set against the public interest,” Weingarten said. “We won’t let them take away our jobs. We won’t let them cut our pay. We won’t let them plunder our pensions. And I will be damned if I let them define who we are.”
To prove she’s serious, Weingarten demoed a “collaboration meter” to determine whether school systems and unions are moving from “kumbaya hot” to “I-never-want-to-speak-to-you-again” cold.
A couple of other interesting tidbits:
—When discussing the Washington Teachers’ Union, Weingarten described WTU members as such: “They, my friends, have been in the fight of their lives.” Hmmm. What do you think that means about the contract mediation?
—Along the same lines, D.C. City Councilman Vincent Gray got a special welcome and so forth. It’s probably no coincidence that he has been among the most vocal critics of the agenda of that city’s schools chief, Michelle Rhee.
—Weingarten acknowledged that AFT will probably have “our disappointments and disagreements with some of the very people we helped elect.” Nevertheless, she said, had AFT not worked to elect Obama and a Democratic-leaning Congress, there’d never have been a stimulus bill.
—Weingarten has a consistent roster of districts with collaborative union-management relationships that she likes to hold up as models: Toledo, Ohio; ABC School District, in California. She threw a bone to Detroit’s new leadership, too, for its joint creation of a professional-development day, although clearly the student-achievement results have yet to be seen there. It’d be nice to hear about a couple of other districts that are representative of this type of collaboration. Perhaps we’ll have to wait until the Innovation Fund examples are released.
—Weingarten’s been one of the supporters of keeping mayoral control in New York City, as long as it’s transparent and contains checks and balances. But when a clip of N.Y.C. Mayor Bloomberg was shown, conference attendees booed and hissed.
—AFT Secretary-Treasurer Antonia Cortese got a good laugh when she promoted the union’s Twitter page for the conference. “Maybe after that, someone can get me online and explain to me this whole tweeting thing.” (I feel her pain. I’ve only just mastered blogging, and now I have to figure out how to make this Twitter thing work.)
More coming soon when Duncan and Weingarten take questions from journalists.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.