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What is the best way to improve education for children?
And are teachers’ unions helping or hurting?
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, this week on ‘Firing Line.’
‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible by… Corporate funding is provided by…
My guest today has spent much of her career working successfully at the combative intersection of education and labor.
Randi Weingarten has led the American Federation of Teachers, a union with 1.6 million members and more than a $200 million annual budget.
She has a well-earned reputation as an adept political operator, a fierce negotiator, and a skilled triangulator.
A native New Yorker, her interest in labor law and unions was sparked by her mother, a schoolteacher who participated in a seven-week strike while Randi was in high school.
Demonstrating that things haven’t changed all that much, the decision to go on strike has been embraced by teachers coast to coast in recent months.
She is a gifted lawyer and former high school teacher, who has taught medical ethics, political science, and of course, civics.
But Ms. Weingarten may be entering the most exciting chapter of her career, now that the Supreme Court has rendered its decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which overturned a 41-year precedent ruling that public employees cannot be compelled to support unions.
She is as confident as ever, maintaining that her union will rise unaffected by the sweeping challenges it faces, Including, as some predict, significant losses of membership and revenue.
And so I welcome you, Randi Weingarten, to ‘Firing Line.’
Thank you very much for being here.
It’s great to be here.
I want to start with the Janus decision…
…because the ruling of the court was that, in the case of public-employee unions, the collective-bargaining function is essentially inextricably intertwined from political activity.
So if you’re a public employee, you are compelled to pay the union a fee, which is called an agency fee, whether you’re a union member or not.
The labor unions may represent individuals in ways that are inconsistent with individuals’ personal views.
So they should not be compelled to pay for speech they disagree with.
Tell us why you disagree with that rationale.
So, the rationale is, frankly, I’m going to use Justice Kagan’s words in her blistering, scathing dissent, where she said, for no apparent reason, the Supreme Court has overturned 41 years of precedent that had been affirmed six times, where they ignored the 10th Amendment and states’ rights to govern labor relations as states saw fit, all because they wanted to weaponize the First Amendment on behalf of moneyed interest, like in Citizens United, where money became speech.
The one point that just seems worthy of — of staying on just for a second is this weaponization of the First Amendment, because it — it rings to some, especially those on the right, that the First Amendment gets weaponized when the outcomes of the policies the left disagree with…
So, I disagree with you on that, because when an amendment is used to actually suppress the rights that others have — so, for example, the First Amendment in this case, in Citizens United, by allowing unlimited amounts of money to be spent in elections —
But hold on.
But Citizens Union — United, rather — the Citizens United case was about whether a documentary film could be paid for — whether a documentary film could run about a candidate in a political cycle.
The effect of it has been, just like the effect of this case will be, that those with money will actually have more power than the will of the people.
But let’s go back to weaponizing the First Amendment, because it seemed to me that the left used to be the movement that wrapped itself in the First Amendment, and it seems that it has moved away from the First Amendment.
How do you weaponize a fundamental right?
So, actually not.
If you think about what the First Amendment was about — and, look, I’m a history teacher, and I agreed with what the First Amendment — The First Amendment should be broadly read and broadly viewed.
What the First Amendment was about is speech, not money.
But should a person’s money be forced to be spent on speech they disagree with?
Well, it’s not forced to be spent on speech they disagree with.
In fact, the — the issue really here is simply this.
And look, we lost the case.
So we’re moving on, but the issue is simply this, and that’s what I want your — your viewers to hear.
The issue was simply, if a union has the responsibility to represent everyone, which we believe we have and we should, should people pay a fair share for that?
That’s the narrow case.
There’s — The question that they raised — right? — is that, ‘Can you take away the political activity from the labor negotiation?’
In other words —
Well, for 41 years, the Supreme Court said, ‘Yes, you can.’
They cited Thomas Jefferson.
They said that — Right?
I know you saw this.
And Alito said — They said Thomas Jefferson wrote that, ‘To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the Propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.’
If you say that, then you are actually saying that taxes — because taxes go for some things that people don’t believe in.
So the dilemma with what is going on right now with this case and with the rationale of this case is that you are getting perilously close to saying that if you don’t like what — anything that the government is doing, then that is a violation of your rights and you can withdraw.
What rights of members have been suppressed with the Janus decision?
What happens is that economic rights have been suppressed ultimately.
What economic rights have been suppressed?
Economic because when a union will know — what the — the point… So — So, take what has happened since the case.
There have been 38 cases now brought by the so-called Freedom Foundation and other right-wing billionaire interests, not individual members or nonmembers, who are trying to defund unions.
And what will happen is, just like in public schools, when you have defunding, when you have austerity, when you have less money in your budgets, you can do fewer things.
I thought you were talking about speech rights, not economic rights.
No, what I’m saying is that the rights that have been hurt are, first and foremost, states’ rights to actually run their labor relations the way they see fit, the 10th Amendment rights.
But, secondly, for individual workers, what has happened is, when unions get diminished, workers’ wages get diminished.
Okay, needless to say —
The case was decided.
The case was decided.
In states where similar decisions were made at the statewide level, Wisconsin and Michigan, when teachers were notified that they no longer had to pay into the union, they didn’t have to pay those agency fees — in other words, those fees that didn’t mean they were part of the union, but they had to pay anyway — membership dropped pretty precipitously.
In three years in Wisconsin, the membership for the AFT actually went down almost 10,000.
The membership in Michigan’s largest union dropped almost 30,000 in five years.
In the same cases.
So you actually haven’t experienced yet what will happen in a post-Janus world…
Well, that is what —
…when teachers no longer have to affirmatively opt in.
Actually, in the last month, since the Janus decision, we are experiencing something quite different, but you are right.
We learned from what happened in Wisconsin and what — and frankly, in Michigan, our experience was completely different than what you’re talking about.
Our experience is that about 95% of our folks stuck with the union, but —
So, how are you making the case?
So, this is what’s happened since, frankly.
It’s all anger over the right wing, or are you making an affirmative case…
…for why teachers should stay?
First off, we’re calling out who brought the case, which was not Mark Janus, who, by the way, is now working for the right-wing think tank that brought the case.
But it was really these right-wing entities that don’t want somebody to balance their power.
So we’re calling that out, but most importantly, more than — more important than anything else, is — it’s the value of belonging.
Well, that’s what I’m getting at.
So, what is the affirmative case for — especially for younger teachers?
Actually, younger teachers see the value of belonging, in some ways almost more than anybody else, because younger teachers — younger teachers have been through the recession.
They’ve Been through — They have huge college debt.
And what they see is that they want voice in agency, in a meaningful way.
And they want engagement in a meaningful way, and they want to have professionalism and authority in their classrooms.
There have been strikes across the country, and you’ve written about it in the ‘Washington Post’ opinion editorial that you write about strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, and even Colorado.
And as you noted in your ‘Washington Post’ opinion editorial, that teacher walkouts across the country were happening even in the absence of strong unions.
Those were states that didn’t have strong unions.
And in each of those cases, teachers ended up strengthening their position.
In West Virginia, they got a 5% raise.
In Arizona, they got a 20% raise by 2020.
In Oklahoma, a $6,000 raise.
Colorado, raises as well.
So all of those walkouts were organized on Facebook and on Twitter and with mobile devices and new technologies…
…absent the presence of union organizing.
Actually, it was the presence.
But not by unions.
And those were states where unions didn’t lead the strikes.
In other words, you know, how are you going to compete now?
And is —
Actually, in West Virginia —
Are these mobile devices sort of the new union organizing tools?
Yes, they are.
No strike happens without grassroots sentiment.
And anyone who says otherwise is smoking something.
And so what — But what happened in West Virginia in particular is that the union leadership was smart enough to understand that the members showed a willingness to go out.
I think that part of my question is, to what extent in those experiences were the unions the critical organizing factor?
They actually —
And so why are they going to continue to be relevant…
Actually, they were.
…if you can organize without them?
Actually, they were the critical organizing element.
They weren’t the critical mobilizing element.
So what you’ll hear from people who are actually very engaged in the organizing — whether it be in Oklahoma, in Arizona, in West Virginia — is that people actually mobilized and organized through the union.
You’ve referenced this Educators for Excellence poll, and you’ve referenced and said, in your writings, that unions need to do a better job of listening to their membership.
If teachers didn’t feel like their unions were representing them, you would not see the huge number of — of — of — of excitement that we’re actually seeing right now.
People want voice and agency.
Where I think we have to do a better job —
So, why do they have to pay the union to have that?
Well, because —
They can have agency on their own, they can have a voice on their own.
Most of us don’t have much power by ourselves.
Frankly, the reason —
But you can have strength in numbers without having the union.
Actually, you don’t — If you don’t actually have an infrastructure, if you don’t have an organization that actually creates structure, that creates a place to go, a building to go, you don’t actually have the kind of power that, for example, the Chamber of Commerce has, that, for example, that the Koch brothers have, the DeVos family has.
Does that mean that everything we do is great?
Does that mean there’s a lot that we can learn?
Does that mean that we should be listening more?
But isn’t there an opportunity for unions to become more like professional associations, like the American Medical Association, like the Association for Trial Lawyers, where you’re really focusing essentially on the needs of the people who are the members and less on the collective-bargaining function?
It’s not an either/or.
It’s a both/and, because, frankly, for most people, that collective-bargaining contract, which provides wages and health benefits, is as essential.
These are the things that help people sleep at night.
Television hosts, professional athletes, salespeople — almost everybody in every industry has some form of metric analysis for measuring how well you’re doing at your job
And there’s a perception that the union continues to be opposed to measuring and to metrics for teacher evaluations.
What we’re support of — What we support is actually what parents support, which is not the fixation on testing data but the fixation on three things.
‘Have I gotten the conditions that I need to do my job?
Have I taught what I said I was going to teach?
And have kids learned it?’
But how do you know the good teachers?
How do you know where your good teachers are, so you can reward them, and who the bad teachers are, so they can exit the system?
Well, any principal actually knows, within about 20 minutes of being in a classroom, someone who can teach and someone who can’t, and you can do this through evaluation and through observation in all sorts of different ways.
The real issue is —
And what the ed reformers will say about that is that the unions will then, as soon as a teacher receives a demerit or a letter in their file, they have to then face union ire for having pointed out that a teacher is not hitting its mark.
Actually, that’s not true.
If you look at the Rand study that just came out, what people are saying more and more is that this whole notion of peer intervention, which we have done in New York for years, we are actually more — we are actually stronger when we do peer intervention, peer-to-peer, stronger in our criticism of what isn’t good pedagogy and stronger in counseling people out of the profession than what we have seen in school systems.
What’s hard is, it’s hard to have… Just like we’re having a conversation where we disagree, but we’re disagreeing civilly, it’s actually really hard in work to say to somebody, ‘You’re not doing a good job, and this is why you’re not doing a good job.’
What the union voice is about, and what we normally see happening, is that if somebody doesn’t — if the principal doesn’t like someone, and we say, ‘Why are you taking off on her?
What’s really going on in this situation?’ if a teacher needs a voice to actually say, ‘I have too many kids in my classroom, and I can’t get to them, I can’t reach everyone,’ that’s what the voice is.
In every other industry, if somebody is not hitting their mark professionally, they have a conversation with their supervisor.
And that —
And then they — There’s a process for either fixing it or for exiting them.
And that is what most union contracts actually say.
So, after an evaluation, we need that meeting where we get feedback.
And that’s a really important meeting, and that was something that the management didn’t want to do.
So, the D.C. IMPACT program was an impact plan that education reformers supported and that you supported in the time.
And you got a lot of credit from education reformers in 2010 for supporting it.
It was a plan that was a pretty comprehensive plan for not just measuring how students were learning but also measuring how teachers were performing in the classroom.
And it rewarded teachers who were doing well pretty handsomely, financially.
I mean, teachers got up to $25,000 bonuses.
There are teachers in the D.C.
public schools now who are teaching math and sciences in very difficult neighborhoods, that are getting over $100,000.
So, Margaret, I am, and the AFT is and our locals throughout the country, we are willing are to try things that are good for kids and fair for teachers.
Would you agree that that has been a successful program?
And the reason I say it wasn’t successful —
Well, there are — I mean, educational studies at the University of Virginia, Stanford University, and the NAEP scores suggest that because it’s been continuously running for eight years, the NAEP scores show that that district, more than any other district in the country, has improved educational standards and outputs since the IMPACT plan was presented.
And Stanford and the University of Virginia suggest that it actually has been a successful program.
And the reason that Washington, D.C., has been successful is they also have a pre-K program, they’ve also well-resourced their schools, they’ve also focused on a bunch of other types of things, so —
But simply the education —
And — And — And —
The factor of teacher metrics is evaluated, and teachers are paid more for good performance.
Teachers are paid more in general in D.C., but the point that I —
Especially the good teachers.
The point I’m trying to make is that the great teachers in that district hate the IMPACT program.
What they like about that district is the comity that’s between people.
So if you still look at that district, in D.C., you’ll still see that the northwest schools, the schools in northwest, which are the most affluent in the city, are doing the best, and the schools in the least affluent places are doing the worst.
That IMPACT — the reason I am pushing back on you is that IMPACT did not change the equity issues in that city.
it just seems that there are no metrics that are going to pass the sniff test…
No, of course there are.
…of the teaching that are going to be sufficient to actually grading good teachers and rewarding good teachers and creating a path for exit for the bad ones.
Margaret, we want to have real teacher evaluations.
We have actually negotiated them around the country, and they are actually working in ways —
Where is the one that’s working the best?
Toledo, Ohio, a peer intervention program.
Look at the New York evaluation system — New York City evaluation system that was negotiated.
Look at —
Of schools, not of teachers, though.
No, of teachers, that the union negotiated, and that people have held up.
ABC school district.
Okay, I want to show you somebody who I know you admire, who formerly had your job, whose name is Al Shanker, who was on a previous ‘Firing Line’ with William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, and Thomas Sowell debating the privatization of public education.
Lets take a look.
But it seems to me that we, in this country, have always believed that education should not be the kind of thing that’s better if you’ve got more money or that you don’t get if you don’t have it, that it’s something that’s very basic, that enables people who are far behind economically or in the social strata, enables them to get a chance to move ahead.
There’s very little that Al Shanker there said that I think either of us would disagree with.
But I think what we see in the contemporary debates about education reform is that people are voting with their feet.
And certainly, in the school-choice movement — right? — people are, especially, minority children, minority families who come from incredibly challenged economic circumstances, overwhelmingly are, to the extent that they have the option, choosing to go outside of the normal public-school choices that they have.
And I’d like to know how we’re going to fix this civil rights issue of this generation, which is that we have unacceptable, failing schools in this country still.
You are right.
This country needs to invest more in its children.
But you all have been saying, for decades and decades and decades, that it’s only about investing more.
Actually, that’s not true.
Okay, tell me what —
Look, we just had the conversation about evaluation.
And what I think the through-line is here, Margaret, that there is a big difference between — between the people who are market-based and the people, like me, who believe in public education and a labor movement and believe that in order for most people to have voice and agency, they have to do it collectively.
What does labor and collective bargaining have to do with educational standards and outcomes for children?
Because what has happened is that when teachers have the skills and knowledge and are paid a market rate and are actually — get the resources they need, they do a better —
That doesn’t always reveal the best standards in educational achievement for students.
Well, actually, if you listen to the OECD, the OECD says that the countries that do the best are the ones that actually have the best collaboration with their unions and with their teachers.
So there are four things that, as someone who runs a charter school, that does very well, and as someone who’s kids, when I taught, did very well —
Are you talking about the UFT Charter School?
No, I’m talking about the — the charter school in the Bronx, Uni Prep, whose board I am still on.
And frankly, the UFT Charter School has actually turned around and is doing very well right now, as well.
But as someone who actually taught —
The high school, though, not the K-through-8 they had to shut down.
The K-through-8 school, we decided to shut down, because it wasn’t doing well, but the high school has turned around and is doing very well.
And the Uni Prep High School has always done well.
And so — But as someone who also taught kids at Clara Barton High School, only black and brown kids, only poor kids, whose kids actually won competitions in the Bill of Rights, what we’ve learned from that experience and so many other experiences is you focus on kids who obey, you engage them instructionally, you create capacity for teachers to actually have the skills and knowledge to do a good job, and you actually have cultures of collaboration.
If you do those four things, I don’t care if it’s a charter school or a public school, that school is going to do well.
And that is what we don’t do enough of in America, particularly for kids who are poor.
I mean, there are plenty of examples of educational experiments that are not unionized, that are providing just as high quality and, in many cases, higher-quality education for students who are African-American and Hispanic and of challenged economic circumstances, that aren’t organized by labor unions.
Isn’t there an opportunity to improve student outcomes in a way that isn’t entirely or always tied to labor?
Actually, there’s always an opportunity to you improve student outcomes.
That should be what we are focused on the most.
But the issue really becomes, can we, in this 21st century, make sure that that union has the value — that people feel the value of belonging, they feel that there’s a connectiveness.
And that’s the difference, frankly, between where we are today and where we were 10 or 20 years ago.
Well, that’s absolutely true, and we will see how the union continues to progress and make its case to the next generation of teachers.
Thank you, Randi Weingarten, for being here on ‘Firing Line.’
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