Teachers unions have long served as a reliable source of campaign cash and volunteers for the Democratic Party. But that relationship is evolving and, by some accounts, deteriorating as leaders in both parties embrace controversial education reform agendas. Kojo explores the politics of education reform with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.


  • Randi Weingarten President, American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO


  • 13:06:39

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 in Washington and from the studios of the GROUNDCREW in Charlotte, N.C., welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. We are here for the Democratic National Convention. Later in the broadcast, the southern dialect, how the southern drawl creeps into the speech of politicians from Delaware, Illinois and Massachusetts but first educational reform and organized labor.

  • 13:07:12

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFor decades, teachers unions have served as a vital part of the democratic coalition helping to form national education policy and providing resources and foot soldiers to campaigns. But over the last four years a new reform agenda has emerged sometimes in tension and sometimes at odds with organized labor. Still a consensus has emerged in speeches here in Charlotte that America needs to invest more in education and that teachers remain one of the most important factors in success.

  • 13:07:43

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAs the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten represents more than a million educators. She joins us here in studios in Charlotte, N.C. Randi Weingarten, good to see you. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:07:58

    MS. RANDI WEINGARTENOh my god, it's always great to be with you and to be with you here, as opposed to in D.C., is also a real treat.

  • 13:08:06

    NNAMDIWell, let's talk about here for a second. How's it been going for you over the past three days? I see you're up and bright and -- even though you've been staying up late at night.

  • 13:08:15

    WEINGARTENAs I said, you know, I feel like such a loser because I go to sleep early these days and we've been up late, late, late. This is what's been so incredible about this week and I watched a lot of the republican convention last week on TV. When I was around the country with back to school in Ohio, in New Mexico, in Pittsburgh working with teachers who were, you know, being in schools with kids for the first two weeks of school.

  • 13:08:50

    WEINGARTENThere is an urgency here in Charlotte about what we need to do for the next four years and how we -- and you see a real difference between the two parties right now in how to proceed in this country. And I think Bill Clinton crystallized it as well as anyone else in his speech last night. But it is essentially a philosophy or a theory or a course of action that the democrats are espousing that say, we need to work together to ensure that all Americans get a fair shot.

  • 13:09:36

    WEINGARTENWe've done a lot to repair the economy, not enough. Just like with education we've done a lot but not enough versus the Romney/Ryan theology that's essentially, you're on your own unless you're a rich guy. And it's just -- and so what I'm hearing and seeing in Charlotte is a Democratic Party that is unified in a big tent saying we have to try different things. We have to do new things. We have to share responsibility. We have to work together but this is an all not a sum in terms of what we do for America.

  • 13:10:14

    NNAMDIWith education maybe emerging as one of the priorities here, Randi Weingarten joins us in studio. She is president of the American Federation of Teachers AFL-CIO. You can join the conversation with Randi Weingarten by calling 800-43--8850. Do education issues and education reform influence your vote? Over the past four years there have been routine flare-ups, tensions between prominent Democrats, especially Democratic mayors and teachers unions, whether we're talking about former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, Mayor Cory Booker in Newark or most recently Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago.

  • 13:10:50

    NNAMDIWhat, if anything, has this done to either shake up or make less comfortable the relationship between the Democratic Party and teachers unions?

  • 13:11:00

    WEINGARTENSo let me just say I've been an educator, a lawyer involved in education and a teacher's union leader for about 25 years now. There's always friction between the boss and the workers. So this new -- this sense that this is a merging new friction, you know, it's ridiculous. There's always that kind of friction because it's a friction over how you spend the marginal dollar. And so it's gotten worse now because we've been in the sense -- in this period of austerity.

  • 13:11:39

    WEINGARTENAnd actually what I've seen in this convention, which is different than the last one, is even the group called DFER, the Democrats for Education Reform, they actually reached to Dennis Van Roekel and myself to actually speak at their forums this year to show that we all have to be in this together. And if you were on the floor of the Democratic Convention last night when Bob King spoke, the head of the UAW, he spoke eloquently about how the UAW got together with GM.

  • 13:12:14

    WEINGARTENThey both sacrificed. The both did things to work together to turn around the auto industry once President Obama stepped in and said he would help rescue it. And it told the story about how the union movement working together with management in a way that makes the product better -- in that instance it was cars, for us it's uniting with community to make sure schools are better -- that is where we have to go.

  • 13:12:46

    WEINGARTENClinton talked about it -- President Clinton talked about it yesterday in terms of cooperation. I talk about it in terms of solution-driven unionism. That is the way we must go and that's where I see great unity within the Democratic Party, how we work together to solve problems on behalf of kids, on behalf of working families.

  • 13:13:09

    NNAMDII'd like to return to some of the specific policy debates in a little while, which you are now characterizing as apparently good old healthy debates. But I'd like to ask you a broader question.

  • 13:13:18


  • 13:13:18

    NNAMDIEveryone seems to agree that there's a mismatch between the skills American workers need and the skills they currently learn in our educational system. There also seems to be consensus that the vocation of teaching itself probably needs to change. The old ideas about career arcs and workloads will need to be amended. If you can think ahead to the year 2022, ten years down the road, what do you think the job of being a teacher will look like or should like ten years from now?

  • 13:13:48

    WEINGARTENThat is an amazing question. So let me talk about what I think remains the same and what I think changes. What remains the same is the connection between student and teacher, the interaction. Teaching is not just taking -- you know, "Waiting for Superman" had a terrible portrayal of teaching. It basically said, you know, you cut the child's head open and you pour some liquid in. That's not teaching. Students are different and teachers are physicians of the mind, but that interaction, that relationship that David Brooks talks about so eloquently, that will always stay the same.

  • 13:14:32

    WEINGARTENWhat is different, and frankly what people like Michelle Rhee and Margaret Spellings and others actually don't talk about is that No Child Left Behind -- actually even though it said, you know, we have to shine the spotlight on where kids are -- the testing philosophy has actually created more rote memorization in our schools than the skills that kids need. And it's actually the status quo now the fixation on testing.

  • 13:15:06

    WEINGARTENWhat we have to do is we have to break that and we have to really focus on things like project-based learning. We have to do things that actually are going to engage kids to critically think and to be creative and imaginative. And so that means a whole different accountability system. And frankly it means the introduction in a real way of this new common core curriculum, common core standards that 46 out of the 50 states have adopted.

  • 13:15:35

    WEINGARTENI was in a school in...

  • 13:15:37

    NNAMDIWell, allow me to interrupt for -- no, go ahead. You finish your vision first.

  • 13:15:39

    WEINGARTENLet me just -- because I was in a school in Albuquerque, N.M. this last week and I asked the kids that are fifth graders, I said what do you want to learn this year? And lots of hands shot up and you know what they said, Kojo? Science. Science, science, science. And this was not a group of kids who just had a lecture about STEM. And they didn't know that Neil Armstrong -- or maybe they knew that Neil Armstrong had just died but why science?

  • 13:16:09

    WEINGARTENThey had not -- because of No Child Left Behind the standards there, they had not had had science in the first four years or five years of their education. So we have to do things. Things will change. We'll be using technology more. We will be focusing on helping all kids get to the critical thinking and the applying knowledge skills that they need so that they can apply knowledge in the 21st century. And so schools will look really different but the essence of schooling, the teach-child relationship will stay the same.

  • 13:16:45

    NNAMDII got the impression that a lot of the advocates for educational reform felt there were too many kids who were getting ahead in school or moving along in school without having basic skills. And that part of the education reform movement was to make sure that those kids had the basic skills. So when you talk about teachers being able to help kids learn how to think -- I was impressed with Deval Patrick in his speech the other night when he talked about hearing kids recite the I-have-a-dream speech and said they were not just memorizing but asked to talk about the word creed, what it meant or...

  • 13:17:19


  • 13:17:19

    NNAMDI...where Stone Mountain was. And that's obviously where we want our children to go. But in order to get there the ed. reform people seem to be saying is that we need to have tests so that we can at least ascertain that they have basic skills.

  • 13:17:32

    WEINGARTENSo -- but this is what's happened. The system has been aligned to what it measures as opposed to teaching and learning. And so there has to be multiple measure -- so let me just be really clear. We have to be accountable for students learning. And that's why the AFT, our union, has for the last several years also focused on how we fix these broken evaluation systems.

  • 13:17:57

    WEINGARTENWhen I taught basically I got evaluated 20 minutes every few months by a principal or an assistant principal who walked into my classroom. And I was -- when I didn't have -- you know, in my first few years I got evaluated probably a lot more than most teachers. Most people don't see a principal or assistant principal other than once every year or two. That's not an evaluation system. You have to be -- you have to have an evaluation system that is about, did I teach it, did kids learn it and also do I have the tools and the (word?) to do it.

  • 13:18:30

    WEINGARTENWhat this new common core is about -- and that's what Deval Patrick was saying so eloquently -- is about kids applying knowledge. Not just memorizing the I-have-a-dream speech but talking about what it means. Talking about what it means to them. Talking about what it means in the future. And that means, in terms of what we have to do to get there, it gets time, it takes effort and it takes differentiation.

  • 13:18:58

    WEINGARTENWhat happens with these tests -- the current incarnation of tests is that we test prep our way to kids getting a decent score because the scores, not the learning, is what matters right now, you know, in schools either succeeding or failing.

  • 13:19:17

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and taking your questions at 800-433-8850. Do you see a bipartisan consensus emerging on education issues? What role should labor unions play in these conversations? 800-433-8850. You can send email to kojo@wamu.org, send us a Tweet at kojoshow or go to our website kojoshow.org, join the conversation there.

  • 13:19:43

    NNAMDIHow much common ground is there on ed. reform issues right now? Earlier this year the Department of Education pulled together an interesting cross section of educators from labor unions to superintendents to school boards and got them to agree on common principles about next generation teaching. What were those principles and why was that significant?

  • 13:20:03

    WEINGARTENSo there's about -- so I probably won't remember every single word of those principles but it was about...

  • 13:20:11

    NNAMDIWhat's important is not remembering every word, but being able to interpret...

  • 13:20:14


  • 13:20:15

    NNAMDI...to remember.

  • 13:20:15


  • 13:20:16

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 13:20:16

    WEINGARTENSo, you know, so what -- so what was important about the principles was that we talked about what we've learned from other places, which is how we help -- or what we learn from places that work. So how we prepare teachers, recruit, support, evaluate them so that we are creating a continuous growth model. Because this is not about having some good teachers. But if we want education to be about all kids, then we have to make sure we have all good teachers.

  • 13:20:57

    WEINGARTENAnd so the first piece was how do we have the kind of preparation and recruitment processes intact? The second was, how do we actually work together so that schools are places where parents want to send their kids and educators want to work. And so there were lots of conversations about -- or there's lots of principles about, you know, collaboration and working together.

  • 13:21:23

    WEINGARTENSo how do you recruit, retain, support, evaluate teachers? How do you work together? How do you make sure that curriculum is engaging? And so what all these groups, the superintendents, the unions, Secretary Duncan, school boards all said, we have agreed to these kind of principles. Have career ladders so that teachers -- so that we don't lose great teachers to administration. Let them actually -- great teachers really mentor and tutor other teachers.

  • 13:22:07

    NNAMDIThat bothers a lot of people, the fact that as soon as somebody emerges a great teacher they somehow find a way to put that person in administration. But...

  • 13:22:13

    WEINGARTENRight. I mean, the most important -- I think the most important piece that people in the public were surprised about was that the unions with the administrations said, we have to make sure that there's a real evaluation system. And so if we -- if teachers are not being successful and after you help them, then they have to leave the profession.

  • 13:22:38

    WEINGARTENAnd I think people were surprised about that but they were also equally surprised that we said there must be support for teachers. Teaching is a really hard job. And more important than even support for teachers, is that we have to prepare teachers in this country like other countries prepare doctors. Respect them and prepare them.

  • 13:22:59

    NNAMDIBut in politics it would appear you need a good guy and a bad guy. And for a variety of reasons it seems like unions are often cast as a major reason for substandard outcomes in American schools. When Chris Christy gave his speech at the Republican National Convention he drew a distinction between teachers who he says Republicans support and teachers unions, who he portrayed as obstacles to change. How do you counter that point of view?

  • 13:23:25

    WEINGARTENWell, I think that's, again, a really good question. First off, let's talk for a second about why there's that kind of demonization. It is political. It's because the Republican Party knows that working people and their unions have sided with -- more often than not, with Democrats. So rather than actually change their positions so that they relate to working people, they'd rather demagogue and scapegoat the people who are voices of teachers.

  • 13:24:05

    WEINGARTENTeachers want their unions. There have been some recent studies and surveys that have said more -- that as teachers have gotten more demonized they understand the importance of having a voice. Next, parents want their teachers. A new Phi Beta Kappa Poll -- Phi Delta Kappa Poll said that three out of four members of the public, even with all this demonization, really trust their kids' teachers.

  • 13:24:36

    WEINGARTENSo the Republicans, because they don't want to do the investment in education, they have to have some answer. And this is what's really ridiculous about this, that the states that do the best in education in the United States of America are the ones that are -- have more teacher unions. The states that do the worse don't even have collective bargaining. And the countries that do the best are the ones that have real unions. And why is that important? Because at the end of the day if we're not working together, if teachers and parents are not working together we're not going to help kids fulfill their potential.

  • 13:25:19

    NNAMDILet me bring up a specific. Right now Chicago Mayor and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is in the midst of a major contract showdown with the Chicago teachers union. And teachers are even threatening to strike. Many observers saw this coming since Emanuel ran on a promise of extending school hours, even as the system faced a several hundred million dollar shortfall.

  • 13:25:40

    WEINGARTENI know that you've worked with Rahm Emanuel in a variety of capacities. What's your take on the situation in Chicago?

  • 13:25:47

    WEINGARTENSo let me just say that our union -- and I know some of the mayors' representatives -- they have been meeting virtually around the clock in the last few days to try to avert a strike. And we just had an AFT -- the Chicago teachers are one of our locals -- we just had a full briefing by our local president just yesterday in terms of what the situation is.

  • 13:26:13

    WEINGARTENThe teachers in Chicago are enormously frustrated. It predates Rahm Emanuel. The school system has had total management control since Arnie Duncan and others. And they have abused it meaning instead of actually focusing on what -- on how to ensure that all kids get a decent shot at life, what the teachers tell us, and you see that in the vote, the 98 percent of the teachers in Chicago this summer voted to go on strike -- that is a sign of enormous frustration that they are not allowed to teach.

  • 13:26:55

    WEINGARTENAnd the community has been supporting them because what's happened in Chicago is instead of fixing schools, schools get closed. What happens in Chicago instead of actually doing the work to get guidance counselors and music and art to schools, schools have been starved for resources. And that's what the teachers have been talking about. They accepted the longer day. They wanted it to be a better day.

  • 13:27:19

    WEINGARTENAnd unfortunately, what Mayor Emanuel did when he first came in is he basically stripped the teachers of a raise that they were about to get. And so at the end of the day, when you keep on disrespecting the people that you need so much in a purgative time like this to help kids, people get very frustrated. Having said that, we are working double and overtime to see if the bridges can be built to avert a strike.

  • 13:27:55

    NNAMDIOne of the big topics in education reform right now involves so called parent trigger laws. These laws allow communities and failing school districts to vote to take over the schools either by changing them into charters, firing staff or shutting them down completely. The idea may sound sensible but a lot of educators have expressed discomfort with it. They point out that for profit charter systems may be seeking to profit from these takeovers. What is your thinking about parent triggers?

  • 13:28:23

    WEINGARTENSo parent involvement is absolutely essential. And anything we can do to get parent involvement we should be embracing. But why is it that every parental group in Florida, when this concept of the so called trigger was being debated in the legislature there, every parent group was against it. The people representing business, like the Jeb Bush's of the world who are also involved in online industries trying to get, you know, the public fist to pay for online for-profit industries, they were for it. The Chamber of Commerce is for it but actual real parents were against it.

  • 13:29:09

    WEINGARTENAnd the reason is parents want schools to be fixed. They want public schools to have the investment. They want to be involved at the front end, not at the back end. And what these trigger laws are is they essentially say -- you know, they essentially say, after a school is closed than you get to make one choice, do you want the school to go charter, do you want the school closed or not? And that's -- and so what parents are saying is, let us do like what Connecticut did, like what we did in New York with parents' groups. Get involved in the front end so we actually help kids before a school closes.

  • 13:29:50

    NNAMDIAre you one of those individuals who think that the education reform movement or some segment of the education reform movement is really a movement by for-profit enterprises to take over public education?

  • 13:30:06

    WEINGARTENLook, I am an education reformer. I was thought of as an education reformer before Joe Cline and Michael Bloomberg became chancellor and the mayor of the city school system in the city of New York. I think this notion of saying that those new to thinking education is important is reformers and those of us who have toiled in this field to ensure that kids learn are not. So the - but there was an element of some of the newer people in education change who actually are more concerned about the dollar than about kids.

  • 13:30:51

    WEINGARTENAnd so I don't begrudge anybody from making money. That's part of our capitalist system. But in a period of time like this where we need the investment for kids, where we have cut early childhood education, where we've cut art and music, we have to actually take every single dollar and invest it back into kids as opposed to for-profit.

  • 13:31:15

    NNAMDIYou're getting too passionate now and you have to go.

  • 13:31:17


  • 13:31:18

    NNAMDIRandi Weingarten is president of the American Federal of Teachers, AFL-CIO. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:31:24

    WEINGARTENThank you so much.

  • 13:31:25

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, the southern dialect, how the southern drawl creeps into the speech of politicians from Delaware, Illinois and Massachusetts. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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