Randi Weingarten Shows Solidarity with Newark Teachers Union

John Mooney | March 1, 2011 | Education
AFT president promotes strategy for streamlining tenure and improving teacher evaluation

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and former head of New York City’s teachers union, last Thursday unveiled her plan for revamping teacher tenure.

On Monday, where better to make one of her first stops than in New Jersey, a state that has become a national showpiece for how school reform — including tenure reform — could play out?

Weingarten traveled to the home of the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) yesterday to promote her plan. (Video courtesy of NJN.)

And she took aim specifically at Gov. Chris Christie and his own plans for changing tenure — albeit in very different ways — not to mention his open hostility toward teachers unions.

“While he talks about unions in a pretty pejorative way, he hasn’t seen what the Newark Teachers Union has done or what the American Federation of Teachers [AFT] has done,” she said.

“We have relentlessly focused on teacher quality and improvement, but we have focused on doing it the right way,” she added.

The AFT is the umbrella association for the NTU, the state’s largest local, as well as for those in Garfield, Perth Amboy and North Bergen. But it is by far the smaller presence in a state where virtually every other local is overseen by the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), part of the rival National Education Association (NEA).

Still, the AFT remains the most influential union in urban districts nationwide, and Weingarten has been an outspoken advocate for her membership to be at the table in reform efforts sweeping many states.

This past Thursday Weingarten presented a three-part plan in Washington, D.C., that she hopes will quiet the growing clamor to overhaul, if not eliminate, tenure protections for teachers.

Her plan would call for an evaluation system that would weigh a number of factors in a teacher’s performance, not terribly different from what takes place now. But the difference comes in a system in which teachers deemed unsatisfactory would have one year to improve, with the help of the district, and then face possible dismissal. The appeals process would be limited to 100 days, she said.

“We have asked ourselves the tough questions,” Weingarten said yesterday. “How do you evaluate teachers and what is the best way to support them? And if after the support, they still come up short, what is the best way to remove them from the profession?”

The proposal is not terribly different from one presented last fall by the NJEA’s own leadership, one that drew derision from Christie.

His acting commissioner, Chris Cerf, put forward a plan last month that would be significantly different. It would use student progress on achievement tests as a barometer for teacher evaluations, only providing tenure protections when they have three consecutive years of satisfactory ratings. They would be stripped of tenure after two years of unsatisfactory ratings.

A critical difference is that Cerf’s proposal would not leave the evaluation process to collective bargaining with teachers unions,. It would be enacted through state law. The bill detailing the plan has yet to be filed, but a task force charged with developing an evaluation system has submitted its recommendations with the governor’s office.

Such a statutory change is an anathema to union leaders like Weingarten, especially as they have seen heightened attention to collective bargaining rights in places like Wisconsin and Ohio. Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker has proposed eliminating public employees’ bargaining rights to anything but wages, touching off widespread protests, including one in Trenton last week.

“We have to do this through collective bargaining,” Weingarten said. “It is the best way to insure change, to insure quality service and to insure reform. Hopefully the governor and the mayor of this city will not actually act like the governors in Wisconsin and Ohio, and instead of stripping them of their rights, they will work with public servants in the city to make the schools the best we can make them.”