American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten was arrested last week in Philadelphia while protesting a hearing of the School Reform Commission that voted to close 23 public schools. Here’s a Q & A with her about why she went to Philadelphia, what teachers are worried about, and more.
Q) Why did you go to Philadelphia? Did you go expecting to get arrested?
A) I went to Philadelphia to support the parents, teachers, students, clergy and others—including our local union—who have repeatedly tried to engage the Mayor and the School Reform Commission on what the people of Philadelphia want for their schools. We asked for a one-year moratorium on school closings to give the time to do the other things the community has proposed—with thousands of people supporting this plan in hearings, town halls and conversations. And we have been ignored. When the powers that be ignore you and dismiss you, then you have no other choice than to resort to civil disobedience to confront an immoral act.
Separate from the plan the community created to develop a proactive, pro-public education plan for their schools (proposed by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools PCAPS) many legitimate educational, safety and community concerns had been raised by parents, students and educators about the Boston Consulting Group school closing plan. When you have all that and an unelected board refuses to listen and instead chooses to pursue the destructive agenda of an out-of-state and out-of-touch consulting group to close schools and eliminate public educate, then you have to act.
So we stood arm-in-arm blocking the doors of the SRC meeting room to prevent what we believed was an immoral and illegitimate meeting and vote from taking place. I was honored to join these concerned parents, students and teachers standing up to maintain and not destabilize neighborhoods and for standing up for what kids need.
Q) What statement do you think you made?
A) The eyes of the nation were focused on Philadelphia on Thursday night. With this action, we made it crystal clear whose side the Mayor, the Governor, Superintendent and the School Reform Commission are on. You are either on the side of an out-of-state consulting firm and an unelected board or you are on the side of the people who work, live and send their kids to school in Philadelphia.
We made it clear that the people of Philadelphia want to fix, not close schools and want to maintain, not destabilize neighborhoods. And we sent a powerful message to those that want to dismantle or starve public schools out of existence—that students, parents, teachers and community stand united and that we will continue to fight for what our children need—a high quality public school in their neighborhood. As Dr. King noted, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
The road to justice is long and the fight is far from over. The powers that be that ignore community and pursue reckless strategies must be held accountable and last Thursday was the first step in that effort.
Q) Why shouldn’t Philadelphia have closed 24 schools if they were perpetually failing?
A) First of all, some of the schools on the initial closings list had more than 90 percent of their students graduating. So this was not about closing failing schools. And there were many other examples of neighborhood public schools that even after all the cuts they have sustained, were doing far better than the 84 charter schools that were exempt from this school closing plan. Further research has now demonstrated that mass closing of schools is a reckless strategy that neither helps kids nor saves money. Instead it destabilizes neighborhoods and it’s an attempt to destroy public education in the city.
A study of 44 schools that closed between 2001 and 2006 as part of Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 initiative by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that most students from closed schools transferred into schools that were academically weak. And, a recent study by Research for Action shows that most students from schools recommended for closing in Philadelphia would not end up in better-performing schools. They are likely to wind up in schools much like the ones they were in before.
Closing schools might seem like an easy solution, but fixing, not closing schools and investing in what kids and teachers need is what we should be pursuing. It is hard work, but it is what works and it is what parents, students and teachers want for their schools and neighborhoods.
Pursuing a school closing strategy also doesn’t produce the savings we’re promised. The original school closing plan had a price tag of more than $25 million—more than the $24 million we were told we would save. And look at the school closings that occurred in 2008 in Washington, D.C.—recent audits have shown that the cost of the closings was not the $9.7 million price tag the district originally claimed but closer to $40 million.
Not only won’t students benefit academically, they’ll be forced to travel far outside their neighborhoods, because the closings would create education deserts in areas of the city with the highest concentration of minority and low-income residents. Who would want to stay or move to a neighborhood that doesn’t have a great neighborhood public school as an option?
Contrast the reckless school closure agenda with what I saw at Andrew Jackson school in Philadelphia last year. This is a school that just a few years ago might have been on the chopping block. Instead, the principal, teachers and community came together to make every penny that school gets goes as far as it can in helping children. Andrew Jackson is starved of resources just like every other school in Philadelphia. But they went out into the community to create partnerships that help kids—all the band equipment, all the library books, all donated. They have programs and classes after school for the neighborhood. And they focus on really engaging kids on a rigorous curriculum—you walk into that school and there is real, deep learning going on with kids who are really engaged and want to learn. As a result, the school has seen enrollment go up, people are moving back to the neighborhood because they want to send their kids to Andrew Jackson. And if they can do it with a shoe-string budget and with tremendous grit and focus, we can do it across the city.
Q) What is the biggest problem you hear teachers talking about now as you travel the country?
A) Teachers are really frustrated right now. We are asking more and more of teachers while refusing them the time, tools and trust they need to do their job and then blaming them after setting them up for failure. Budget cuts are starving our schools of resources that help the poorest and most vulnerable students. The fixation on high-stakes testing continues to undermine real teaching and learning. Teachers are being denied the resources, the curriculum and the time to work together they need to effectively implement the new Common Core State Standards. So many are now legitimately fearing that the Common Core is simply another test fixation scheme, rather than a pathway to helping kids learn problem solving, team work and critical thinking skills.
So-called reformers who are the furthest away from the classroom are using their billions to attempt to dictate what happens in our schools—and by peddling top-down accountability, measurement, technology at the same time they ignore the effects of austerity and poverty. What we’ve seen is an unholy alliance of austerity-monger politicians and corporate interests, hedge fund managers and billionaires to starve public schools and services of resources and suck up as much profit as they can off the public dole. And then they have the gall to blame teachers when their top-down dictates and wrong-headed reforms fail.
Look at what happened in Los Angeles last week, where Mayor Bloomberg, Michelle Rhee and millionaires and billionaires came into Los Angeles and tried to spend millions to buy a school board race. When we have that happening, when we have what is happening in Philadelphia where this school closure plan is being pushed at the same time they push a contract proposal that wants to strike down limits on class sizes, no longer require that kids and teachers get adequate and up-to-date text books and instructional materials and even take away drinking fountains and teacher desks—this is really an attempt to destroy public education.
Teachers see it firsthand, and are incredibly frustrated that those who should be sharing responsibility are shirking their responsibility for our students through their silence or acquiescence with these so-called market reformers who more and more are about reaping the effects of the collapse of public education rather than improving public education.
Q) The first term of the Obama administration was not friendly to teachers unions. Do you expect anything different in the second term and if so why?
A) I believe President Obama is committed to helping all children succeed, and has fought very hard for the resources for public schooling. But the administration’s education policies have fixated too much on competition and measurement. The recently released report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity and Excellence Commission reflects a very different view and we will keep pressing for a commitment to equity and to stop this fixation on high-stakes testing and on closing neighborhood schools. I served on this commission and the report issued last month is really a blueprint laying out the necessary programs and policies that the U.S. can take to close its shameful equity gap between the haves and have-nots instead of equity. The commission’s report makes clear that equity is the crucial gateway to excellence. Instead of simply fixating on outcomes, as important as they are, the report speaks to creating opportunities for all children to get there. It calls for concrete investments in wraparound services and preschool. It also spells out how to help and sustain the teaching force we need—not by blaming teachers and their unions, but by elevating the profession, providing high-quality preparation, a feedback-based evaluation system, high-quality curricula, teaching resources, safe and nurturing schools, and collaborative learning environments. It also lays out the need to properly and equitably implement the Common Core State Standards so their potential can be broadly realized. So we have this blueprint—crafted by people from both sides of the ideological spectrum—and we should follow through.
Q) What’s next for teachers unions?
A) Over the past few years, we have faced an existential crisis like never before—the greatest recession since the Great Depression coupled with this unholy alliance of austerity-pushing politicians and the corporate reformers, hedge fund managers and others who want to destroy public education and profit off kids. While we came out with a few bruises, we’re still standing. Despite everything they threw at us, despite the billions they’ve used to attack and vilify us, we’re still here. And these attacks forced us to be smarter, scrappier and stealthier.
So I believe that as teachers and teacher unions, we have a tremendous opportunity in this moment to redefine who we are, what we fight for and to unite community around a shared set of values for the services we provide and our communities. We sit at the intersection of the very institutions that foster broad access to economic and educational opportunity–our system of public schools and the labor movement. These institutions are the gateway to the middle class and they are centerpieces of a just society and vibrant democracy. They enable voice and opportunity. So at the AFT, we are not just focused on fairness, we are fixated on quality. We need to be solution-driven and community-driven. Solution-driven unionism is grounded in solving problems, not just winning arguments. It’s about not only calling out what doesn’t work but proposing what will. It is about being innovative, entrepreneurial and walking the walk, not just talking the talk. And it is about pursuing a shared agenda that unites community with those who educate, heal and serve our communities.
We are doing this in places like McDowell County, West Virginia where our union has led a diverse effort to transform the educational and economic opportunities in this region while also transforming how people view us as a union. We are doing this with our Learning is More Than a Test Score campaign to unite students, parents and teachers against this fixation on high-stakes testing and offering an alternative vision focused on learning. Our Teacher Preparation Task Force has developed recommendations to ensure that teachers are ready on day one and do away with the common rite of passage, whereby newly minted teachers are tossed the keys to their classrooms, expected to figure things out, and left to see if they sink or swim. The top-performing countries spend substantial time and resources to ensure that standards, programs and entry assessments are aligned and coherent, while the United States’ system is a patchwork lacking consistency—and we believe that the people who prepare future teachers and teachers themselves are the best people to govern their profession and standards to entry.
We are looking at how teacher pension funds can rebuild our aging infrastructure and create jobs. Since teachers are constantly looking for high-quality teaching resources, we created Share My Lesson, a digital platform by teachers for teachers that allows users to upload their best resources, review and rate materials to provide quality control and download these resources at no cost.
In Cincinnati and elsewhere, we are really focused on equity. Our union has helped every public school in Cincinnati become a community school, offering students and their families access to wraparound services, including health and mental health services, tutoring, counseling and after-school programs. Student mobility, which can be so disruptive to a child’s education, is down. Discipline referrals have dropped sharply—keeping students in school, learning. And Cincinnati is the first and only urban district in the state to receive an “effective” rating—ranking 13th out of Ohio’s 609 districts on a state academic index. And I am very proud that we launched United For Public Schools this year, an online activist community that allows teachers, parents, students and others to come together, speak out and move forward a pro-public education agenda for our kids and schools.
At the end of the day, it’s about doing everything we can do to make every public school a school where parents want to send their kids, teachers want to teach and students want to learn. From our work arm-in-arm with community in Philadelphia to revamping how we think about teacher preparation, we are demonstrating that unions can not only be one vehicle to help our children not only dream their dreams but achieve their dreams, we are a critical ally and a crucial element to creating strong public schools.