In the late fall of 2008, DA had a heck of a time catching up with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and, at the time, also of the United Federation of Teachers, its New York City affiliate, for a January 2009 interview. The AFT 's political operation in the 2008 elections was unprecedented, with Weingarten, who at the time was rumored as a contender for education secretary, traveling through 18 states to campaign for Barack Obama.
After Obama's election win Weingarten stated, "At a time when the focus on strengthening public education has been all but eclipsed by other issues, Sen. Obama has shown both deep understanding of, and real interest in, the need to ensure every child receives a world-class education. The members and leaders of the AFT welcome President-elect Obama's commitment to working together to strengthen public education. We look forward to partnering with him and with members of both parties to fulfill this promise."
Since then, the aggressive path Obama has taken to strengthen education runs counter to many traditional union positions—a very unusual move for a Democratic administration. Last spring, momentum began for the tremendously creative Race to the Top competition—the $4.35 billion that Education Secretary Arne Duncan will distribute to states based on their commitment to reforming schools by opening opportunities for school choice and putting an emphasis on teacher evaluation and accountability. Before a meeting of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, President Obama spoke about his campaign promise to reform education. "Let me be clear: if a teacher is given a chance, or two chances, or three chances, and still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching," he told the attendees. "I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences. The stakes are too high. We can afford nothing but the best when it comes to our children's teachers and to the schools where they teach."
In another unprecedented move, on January 12 in a speech entitled "A New Path Forward: Four Approaches to Quality Teaching and Better Schools," which Weingarten gave just days before the Race to the Top applications were due, she urged her members to accept a form of teacher evaluation that takes student achievement into account. She said, "If we are going to thrive in the 21st century, our entire approach to education must change—from what goes on in the classroom, to how we care for children's well-being, to how labor and management work together." Her specific recommendations represent a direct tie-in to the administration's efforts for reforming schools. If the AFT membership accepts Weingarten's courageous recommendations, the possibility of real education reform could be near.
Our cover story this month, "Toward a More Perfect Union," written by Ron Schachter and edited by Angela Pascopella, explores school districts such as New Haven (Conn.) Public Schools, whose local union is an AFT affiliate and where a shared concern for students has trumped the often adversarial union-management relationship.
Judy Faust Hartnett, Editor in Chief