Contract For Change

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

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."

Web Only

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories