Thursday, April 03, 2008

A Schools Veteran Girds for a Broader Battlefield


Randi Weingarten has clashed with city officials in her pursuit of “sustainable and incremental change” for schools.

Randi Weingarten has spent more than a decade cultivating a reputation as the archetypal union leader: a combative dealmaker and consummate political street fighter for city teachers. Yet at a recent education conference in Nashville, there was a fellow from the conservative Hoover Institute, Eric A. Hanushek, gushing with praise for Ms. Weingarten, and promising to do all he could to support her bid to become the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the national union.

Just one thing, he added with a laugh: “I don’t know if that’s good for your image.”

Later this month, Ms. Weingarten is expected to announce her candidacy to run the national teachers’ union, with her election widely considered virtually assured. The position would put her in place to be one of the most important people in shaping the national debate on education policy in the next few years.

As head of the city teachers’ union, Ms. Weingarten, 50, has battled with Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein through three contract negotiations. Over and over, she has objected to many of the changes he and the mayor have made in the schools — from their broad reorganization of the system to the use of metal detectors at schools. And yet she has embraced other of their ideas, like charter schools and bonus pay programs, that unions, and some of her own members, have long opposed.

“The basic questions are: Is it fair for members, and is it good for kids?” she said in an interview in her office, where blown-up newspaper articles about her union, the United Federation of Teachers, line the walls. “Nobody wants to be in an environment where the teachers are scapegoats for every failure in education. If it’s a good idea, it should be tried regardless of who is raising it.”

Andrew J. Rotherham, a former member of the Clinton administration and a director of Education Sector, an independent policy group, said Ms. Weingarten would be “the most articulate and attractive spokesperson for teachers’ unions that they have had in quite some time.”

“You just look at Randi, and it’s pretty difficult to caricature her as some cigar-smoking union boss,” he said. “These unions don’t exist for unconventional thinking or radical change; they exist to protect their members. Most of the things that the teachers’ unions want are in the interest of kids, but there are certain things they want that are good for them.”

He predicted that Ms. Weingarten would “put the union in a direction to start moving and influencing things.”

If she is chosen to lead the national union, Ms. Weingarten would be succeeding Edward J. McElroy, who announced in February that he would step down this summer. As other leaders of the national union have done, she would be likely to hold on to her role leading city teachers for some time. She has only hinted at what her plans for the national union would be, but she would probably focus first on the debate over reauthorizing the federal No Child Left Behind law to amend its weaknesses.

“You have a law right now that basically shifts a lot of responsibility to the schools and teachers themselves and leaves nothing up to the people that run them,” Ms. Weingarten said in an interview. “You have very few voices who talk about the kinds of things teachers need to help students succeed.”

In New York, Ms. Weingarten, who has led the teachers’ union for a decade, has succeeded emphatically at the most fundamental job of a union leader: She has raised her members’ salaries by 43 percent in the last five years. But she has angered some constituents with other efforts, like the two union-run charter schools she has opened, and a third she is helping to organize with a Los Angeles-based charter school operator.

She has also agreed to allow teachers to earn bonuses based on student performance, and to reward math and science teachers with lucrative housing subsidies — both union anathemas.

Her critics outside labor say Ms. Weingarten has not eased the numerous strict contract provisions that mandate matters like the number of hours teachers must spend in the classroom, prohibit lunchroom duty and limit the number of staff meetings teachers are required to attend.

“At times she is much more of a trade unionist than she wants to admit and wants to spell out everything in the contract in enormous detail, rather than see teachers as a truly professional group,” said Eva S. Moskowitz, who as the former chairwoman of the City Council’s Education Committee frequently argued with Ms. Weingarten. “I think fundamentally the labor contracts make it extremely difficult to deliver high-quality education.”

Something of a workaholic, Ms. Weingarten is known for driving her staff members hard: calling frequently to remind them of this or that task, checking on the status of this bill or another, and constantly finding more work to be done or strategy to discuss.

At the peak of contract negotiations with the city, Ms. Weingarten has made a habit of calling James F. Hanley, the city’s labor commissioner, before 7:30 every morning.

“She can see my office window from her apartment, and every day, the moment I walked in and turned on the light, a few minutes later the phone would ring,” Mr. Hanley said, laughing. “It was as if she was waiting there for me.”

Mr. Klein and Ms. Weingarten have had a tumultuous relationship since they first met nearly six years ago.

Her reactions to some of Mr. Klein’s initiatives have been nothing short of frantic. When the news broke that the city’s Education Department was considering using student improvement on standardized tests as a factor in teacher tenure decisions, Ms. Weingarten said such a move would be “one of the worst decisions of my professional life.”

Ms. Weingarten is fond of retelling her version of the first time the two met for lunch in 2002, just as Mr. Klein had taken charge of the city’s school system, the nation’s largest.

When Mr. Klein asked Ms. Weingarten for her vision of the pace and strategy schools should use to improve, she said, she replied without pause, “Sustainable and incremental change.”

At that, she recounted, Mr. Klein cringed. No, no, no, he replied, it must be “radical reform.”

“I knew then we would have problems,” Ms. Weingarten said. “He wants a broad sweeping change that will change the system in a way that cannot be changed back.”

“Joel views himself as this total revolutionary, but he fails to take into account those who toil in the field every day,” she added. “The tragedy is that the changes he produced turned out to be just that: incremental.”

Through his spokesman, Mr. Klein confirmed the substance of the meeting with Ms. Weingarten and defended his leadership of the city schools, calling the union part of “a system that has put the needs of adults ahead of the needs of kids.”

After graduating from the Benjamin F. Cardozo School of Law, Ms. Weingarten, who grew up in Nyack, N.Y., worked as a lawyer at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, where she was a labor negotiator for unions. In 1986, she joined the city teachers’ union as a top adviser to its president, Sandra Feldman. She also took a part-time job teaching history and government at Clara Barton High School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a position she held for six years and refers to often, and proudly. In 1997, when Ms. Feldman took over the national union, Ms. Weingarten stepped up to lead the city union.

Ms. Weingarten is widely regarded as one of the most influential people in Albany. For example, both the Senate and the Assembly introduced legislation this year prohibiting the use of student test scores to help decide whether to grant teachers tenure. Though the bill is something of a gift to the union, Ms. Weingarten denied asking for it. And she has taken her organizing skills to the global stage: Last week she spent several days in Hong Kong working with teachers there.

Even Ms. Weingarten’s detractors speak in somewhat awed tones of her deft political skills and particular knack for navigating public debate. In interviews with reporters and in intimate meetings, she will frequently lower her voice, as if to soften people’s view of her, and also to get them to listen. At press conferences, though, she routinely rises to the balls of her feet and sounds as if she is shouting into the microphone, very much the image of a furious activist.

Rod Paige, a former federal secretary of education, said in an interview that he viewed teachers’ unions as the “biggest obstruction to school reform anywhere.” But in his recent book, “The End of Hope,” which roundly criticizes unions, he singled out Ms. Weingarten for praise.

“If we’ve got to have union leaders, I would rather have one like Randi,” Mr. Paige said in the interview. “I would come down on the chancellor’s side on probably every argument they’ve had, and I know she’s blocked many things that are absolutely critical. But there is a sense of reasonableness to her. I think deep down she has a goal for proper balance.”


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