Jay Mathews: American Federation of Teachers Announces Innovation Fund

By Jay Mathews
Monday, May 4, 2009

I didn't see many other reporters Tuesday in the narrow, second-floor meeting room of the Phoenix Park Hotel in the District. A U.S. senator's party switch and new National Assessment of Educational Progress data were a bigger draw. But in the long term, the news conference at the hotel might prove a milestone in public education. It isn't often you see a leading teachers union announce it is taking money from what many of its members consider the enemy: corporate billionaires who have been bankrolling the largely nonunion charter school movement.

Of course, it might turn out to be just another publicity stunt. But the people gathered, and what they said, impressed me.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, unveiled the first union-led, private foundation-supported effort to provide grants to AFT unions nationwide to develop and implement what she called "bold education innovations in public schools." The advisory board of the AFT Innovation Fund includes celebrities of my education wonk world: former Cleveland schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, Harvard professor Susan Moore Johnson and even Caroline Kennedy, well known for other reasons but identified at the conference as an important fundraiser for New York schools.

The news release gushed about all the research by teachers that the $2.8 million fund would support, but I was more interested in the sources of the money, particularly the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I would have been less surprised to see President Obama receive a campaign contribution from former vice president Richard B. Cheney.

Consider the rivalries involved. Mice abhor cats. Redskins dislike Cowboys. Regular public school educators (particularly union members) and public charter school educators have a similarly adversarial relationship. Educators at regular public schools often tell me that charter schools -- also public but independent of school system rules -- are siphoning their funds and students. Charter people say regular public schools are captives of listless bureaucracies. The Washington Post last week announced for the first time separate awards for top D.C. regular and charter school leaders, because there seemed no chance to get the two sides to cooperate on picking the winners.

The Broad and Gates foundations have been on the charter schools' side for a long time. In the District, where the teachers union is an AFT local, this divide gets personal. Broad and Gates people have been friendly to D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, one of the few superintendents in the country who supports charters. Broad is thought to be one of the foundations promising to help fund Rhee's offer to give teachers big salary increases in return for surrendering tenure protections. Weingarten has much to say about how the D.C. teacher contract negotiations proceed, but she has given no sign of embracing Rhee's plan.

So why is she accepting the foundations' money? Her friends and adversaries say she always thinks several moves ahead. When I asked why she was dealing with foundations whose support for charters is so unpopular with her members, she replied, "The ties that bind us are so much greater than the squabbles that divide us." AFT founder Al Shanker, she noted, was one of the first to suggest the charter concept, and AFT-run charters operate in New York.

It could be, as some cynics insist, that Weingarten is just trying to look reasonable and impress empty-headed optimists like me. She might have no intention of negotiating away the job protections that nonunion charter leaders can ignore as they create teacher teams to raise student achievement. But I think it is more than that. Younger teachers going into regular and charter schools, and into the AFT, appear more willing than older teachers to give up tenure for more pay and more impact on student achievement. Their friends working for Google and McKinsey and Goldman Sachs don't have tenure. Why should they? Teachers in the most successful charters are working longer hours but being paid more and having the satisfaction of seeing great improvement in their students. What's wrong with that?

Weingarten hears those voices. I think she wants to stay ahead of the generational shift. The GothamSchools Web site says she offered recently to stop using the word "tenure" if that will help win agreement on due process for teachers in trouble.

I struggle to understand union strategy and politics, usually too far from the classroom to interest me. But is it so crazy to think that, eventually, Weingarten will join Rhee in giving D.C. teachers a new and innovative contract, just as she has joined with Rhee's foundation friends to create a new fund for teacher innovation?

E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com

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