Senator Weingarten?

The world has indeed changed.  It used to be CW that senators couldn’t be elected president.  Now we have a president who wants to be a senator…AFT/UFT President Randi Weingarten is in the mix to be the next senator from New York.  Even Page Six weighs-in.

I hope this doesn’t happen though, and here’s why.  There can be little doubt that Weingarten would be a good senator.  She’s a very good politician, tenacious and hardworking, smart, and agree or disagree with her, she cares.  

So what’s the problem?  It’s that there are other people who can be a good senator from New York but looking around the teachers’ union scene you don’t see a lot of national leaders with the potential to be transformative and move things along past today’s debates.  There are some promising up and comers but if Weingarten leaves now it will leave a vacuum.   She’s already doing two jobs, adding a third is probably untenable even for her.*

Obviously, there are some important differences between Weingarten and many in the reform community, including myself, and big issues yet to be resolved.  Still, if you want to see progress on schools it’s important to recognize the extent to which in different ways there is some interdependency right now in terms of moving the ball on reform at scale and where she stands relative to the situation overall and why that matters.  

*I guess there is precedent here though.  In Rhode Island the head of the Providence Teachers’ Union serves in the statehouse there, too.  That’s always struck me as a great example of union-initiated efficiency improvements in an industry…cut out the middleman!

3 Replies to “Senator Weingarten?”

  1. School unions, let it not be forgotten, are part of government. They are privileged by law. Without such protection a union would be considered criminal activity.

    The story of school unions goes something like this: The government uses its power to advance itself on the backs of whomever it can so unions form to protect teachers from this tyranny. This little story, so nice and neat, is utterly incomplete.

    Public sector unions advance themselves, too, and certainly at the expense of elements of government that are in the way of supplying unions with more protection -but never at the expense of the government size as a whole. Why kill the goose that lays the golden egg?

    Unions, in gaining legal privilege, hurt everyone and everything else, including students, parents, taxpayers and most especially, non-union (potential) teachers. By barring individual bargaining, unions are allowed to thwart the basic rights of association between employer and potential employee. Furthermore, unions deny parents the right to have input on their child’s education. Teachers are not accountable to parents, but they still force their or the union’s or the government’s (or some chaotic amalgamation of all three) ‘education’ on the kids. The worse part is that they get paid no matter the consequences and at a rate that parents cannot control!

    Any entity that is protected from the market will produce less or less quality for more costs. No wonder the real history of unions is full of collusion with government and stories of union leadership selling out their own members. In South Africa, unions were used to enforce Apartheid. One economist labeled this phenomenon the “Colour Bar”.

    True, government is tyrannical. But two wrongs do not make a right. Sure, make Randi Weingarten a Senator. Let crooks be with crooks.

  2. Randi is incontrovertibly hard-working, smart, knowledgeable, sophisticated and philosophically inclined to consider reform rather than to reflexively reject it, unlike some other national union leaders. All this makes her a very effective AFT leader. But fundamentally, her leadership of AFT is a negative for ed reform and she would do far less harm to ed reform as Senator than she does as AFT president.

    While she will be open to, and will actually agree to, some mild reforms as AFT president, she is duty-bound, as is every other union leader, to advance the personal interests, pecuniary and otherwise, of her members. This doesn’t make her craven, or venal or evil. It’s not about personalities at all, it’s about institutions, and unions, as institutions, have a very specific mission. That mission historically has been critical to the development of our economy and our values as a country in providing a counter-weight to the mission of business interests to increase value for their shareholders. In education, however, this mission doesn’t provide a counter-weight to the profit motive, it provides a powerful means of advancing the interests of a group of employees, interests that sometimes do and sometimes don’t coincide with those of students, just as the interests of seniors represented by AARP sometimes do and sometimes don’t coincide with the interests of Americans at-large.

    The impact of teacher unions can’t really be seen at AFT or NEA offices — it hits home in schools, and in a thousand ways: principals who discipline union reps for legitimate reasons find themselves subject to anonymous reports of financial improprieties, threats by union officials and libelous articles in union publications; union reps refuse to allow math and literacy block scheduling; teachers who would never get hired on merit are forced into vacancies in high-need schools; senior teachers are given after-school academic intervention work though more junior teachers would be more effective, etc., etc., etc.

    Parents, advocates, even elected officials who understood how the advocacy for teacher interests gets played out at the school level would be (and sometimes are) aghast at the way nonsensical ways schools are held back from doing common sense things to improve instruction provided to kids. But teachers’ unions have been masterful in their ability to project the idea that “unions want what kids need” and Randi, in particular, has been extremely skillful in cultivating an image of reform for herself and the UFT. The reality is she hasn’t agreed to any real reforms in NYC unless they were forced upon her.

    Case in point: charters. She got tremendous credit for opening 2 charter schools in East New York. And, god knows, providing quality educational options for parents in that neighborhood is a very good thing. But at the same time she was being lauded for taking the ‘risk’ of opening charter schools (in actual fact there was little internal opposition to this decision), her union was fighting tooth and nail in Albany to maintain a cap on the number of charters statewide (as if kids need to be protected from charter schools, and not the thousands of terrible district schools around the state). All she really did was use up 2 valuable charter slots that are precious commodities only because of the charter cap which the union engineered and guards energetically. That’s not reform, that’s a public relations ploy. Everything else she uses to burnish her credentials as a reformer — open market teacher hiring, effective peer intervention, housing bonuses for shortage area teachers — she agreed to at the point of a gun.

    Again, my point is not to criticize her for these tactics — she’s doing exactly the right thing to effectively represent her members. But that doesn’t mean that having Randi as AFT president as opposed to someone more like Reg Weaver is actually going to help spur dramatic changes in poorly-performing schools. Instead, it makes it harder for parents to be convinced to support reforms that teacher unions oppose, just as the smiling faces of single mothers on Wal-mart commercials make it harder for unions to convince consumers that, by putting even efficient US suppliers out of business in their single-minded pursuit of products from (unregulated) Asian markets, Wal-mart diminishes their standard of living.

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