Meet the Activist at the Heart of the U.S. Teacher Protests
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the teachers’ movement is on the rise.
By Molly Fosco
This week, thousands of people descended on the Oklahoma state Capitol, holding signs that declared, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance!” and “Give us the tools we need so we can succeed!” It was the latest in a string of teacher walkouts in favor of increased education funding. And if you squinted hard enough at the picket lines in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Illinois and Puerto Rico in recent weeks, you’d have seen the same diminutive 60-year-old New Yorker: Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Long one of the most powerful — and controversial — figures in the labor movement, Weingarten has emerged as a face of a nationwide battle for more resources for public education that has taken a bold, even desperate, turn after years of budget cuts by states and school districts. West Virginia teachers won a 5 percent pay raise after shutting down the state’s schools for nearly two weeks. Oklahoma saw its third day of walkouts Wednesday, with educators demanding more classroom funding — even after the legislature tried to avert the walkout with a $6,100 teacher pay raise. Kentucky teachers are storming their Capitol this week to protest budget cuts and pension changes. More states are likely to join in. When asked why teachers are striking now, Weingarten says, “Because the time for passive resignation is over.”
Our weapon is our vote, and our mission is the 2018 elections.
The situation has become so dire in Oklahoma that many public schools have been forced to operate on a four-day week. Textbooks are severely outdated and falling apart, and buildings are in disrepair, including defective heating systems that force kids to bundle up head to toe in the winter. Weingarten says she spoke to an Oklahoma social studies teacher who has kids that are forced to sit on the floor because there aren’t enough desks. “The inequity for kids in this country is real,” she says.
The daughter of a schoolteacher who went on an illegal strike when Weingarten was in high school, the labor leader is rooted in education and activism. Her suburban high school outside New York didn’t want for much — from rigorous coursework to ample extracurriculars — but when she later taught history at Clara Barton High School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, she was astonished at the lack of resources. “In the same state, 20 years later, the textbooks I used in my classroom in the 1990s said that John Kennedy was president,” Weingarten says.
While teaching in Brooklyn, Weingarten — a Cornell University and Cardozo School of Law grad — was also working as a lawyer at the United Federation of Teachers, where she eventually became president. Weingarten recalls one of her biggest victories in the post as winning a health and safety lawsuit against a local school district that led to guarantees that there would be no more exposed wiring in the building, that all bathroom stalls must have doors and all heat systems must be functional in winter. She left UFT for AFT in 2008, taking over a group that now stands at 1.7 million members. In 2009 she created the AFT Innovation Fund, which supports collaborative education reform projects, including a focus on project-based instruction as opposed to testing.
Weingarten says she is fighting for kids, but to her critics, she’s out to protect teachers — even poor-performing ones — above all else. She has fought aggressively against the proliferation of charter schools and “school choice” plans across the country, saying they are part of a privatization push to undermine traditional public education. In a speech last year, Weingarten compared such plans to school segregation movements of history. “In her comments, she has in effect spat on the face of every African-American and Hispanic child who’s trapped in the school that doesn’t serve them well,” school choice advocate Kevin Chavous told the press in response.
Weingarten has become a prominent liberal activist for causes beyond education. She has been arrested several times during demonstrations, including a protest against the closing of 23 public schools in Philadelphia in 2013, the death of Eric Garner in New York in 2015 and efforts to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last December. She regularly attends protests and rallies all over the country in support of teachers, students and people she believes in. When I spoke to her, she was in Memphis marching for the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. Weingarten says King’s push at the ballot box is especially urgent now. “Our weapon is our vote, and our mission is the 2018 elections,” she says.
Still, Weingarten has been known to spring political surprises. The wife of a rabbi, she recently led AFT in partnering with evangelical Christian nonprofit Operation Blessing International to launch a new program to provide water filtration devices to over 50,000 people in every public school in Puerto Rico after the island was devastated by hurricanes.
She’s been a fierce opponent to President Donald Trump and education secretary Betsy DeVos — a prominent school choice backer before she joined the cabinet — but she did make an early overture to the administration. Last year she met privately with then White House chief strategist Steve Bannon in the hopes of finding some common ground with Trump, but “it didn’t happen,” Weingarten says. “Bannon understood something that Trump and DeVos do not — that public education is the foundation of democracy.” But Bannon was fired last summer. Weingarten says she has sent letters to Trump regarding education policy. He has not replied.