Spotlight Q&A: Randi Weingarten

John Mooney | May 24, 2012 | Education
At the Newark bargaining table, a place for the president of the American Federation of Teachers

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
When the two sides sit down to discuss the Newark teachers contract, it’s a pretty high-profile group at the bargaining table. In a half-dozen discussions so far, joining Superintendent Cami Anderson and Newark Teachers Union President Joseph DelGrosso has been New Jersey’s acting education commissioner Chris Cerf.

But even more notable, the fourth person often in the room has been Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and arguably the nation’s preeminent voice for public school teachers.

NJ Spotlight spoke with Weingarten yesterday about her participation in the talks for the contract that will be central to the success or failure of Anderson and Cerf’s reform efforts for the district.

The former president of the New York City teachers’ union also expounded on the reform proposals themselves, including plans to close six schools, and the $100 million Facebook gift that has made Newark schools a national story.

Question: The NTU is a unit of the AFT, of course, but is it typical for you to sit in local talks yourself?

Answer: “I am a big believer in using the collective bargaining process as a vehicle for school improvement. Take the chancellor’s district that we negotiated in New York City, long before Mayor Bloomberg. If you look at the last 25 years, I think it is one of the most effective efforts we have yet, not just in what happened initially but in its sustainability. And there are other examples that have succeeded over a long period of time, in Cincinnati and New Haven.

“We [at the AFT] have been very activist. People are good at different things and negotiating just happens to be one of the skills I have gained over time. I feel the president needs to roll up sleeves and not just send staff.”

Q: How important is Newark in the national picture?

A: “A lot of people are looking at Newark because of the Facebook money and also the state control. There is a confluence there of lots of different issues.”

Q: Does the Facebook money help improvement efforts or hinder them?

A: “Sometimes you take situations as you find them, rather than how you want them to be. But the Facebook is money is part of the puzzle in Newark, and I have to say it is far more transparent. Rather than having the Walton family or the Broad Foundation trying to influence things, at least you know where this is coming from.”

“Would it be better if it was public money, absolutely. But the public needs to feel confident that we know what we are doing, and the private money can help seed that.”

Q: Anderson’s reform plans for the district include closing some neighborhood schools and consolidating others. It’s a similar strategy in other large urban districts in the state, too. What do you think?

A: “It’s a page out of capitalism, and we are in a capitalist democracy. But in terms of schooling, parents need great neighborhood schools, and we need to create them, not shutter them down. When you shutter them, you are only destabilizing a community. “

“I very much disagree [with Anderson] on that. It doesn’t mean we can’t engage in collective bargaining, but I think it is the wrong strategy. It is wrong in Chicago, it is wrong in New York, and it is wrong in Newark.”

Q: One of the challenges likely to be addressed in the teachers contract is determining what to do with teachers displaced by those closings and now in an excess pool, mostly used as support and substitutes but unable to find jobs elsewhere in the district. What should happen to these teachers?

A: “We have an obligation to help them become the best they can be. And when someone has been viewed as a good teacher and then all of a sudden their school closes and they are jettisoned maybe because they are considered too expensive, that is wrong. A lot of it comes back to having a good evaluation system in the first place.

“The notion that a school’s failure is the teachers’ fault is just wrong. Who is going to want to go into the toughest schools when the first thing that could happen is the school closes and you get mischaracterized as an unsatisfactory teacher.”

Q: What about the idea of buying out these teachers, a practice being considered in New York City and reportedly on the table for Newark teachers through the contract talks well?

A: “There are lots of ways of dealing with issues of change. You try to avert layoffs every way you can, and we have negotiated buyouts. It is a human resource tool if you want to be as humane as you can be.”

Q: Are you optimistic about these talks and the district’s direction as a whole?

A: “I think there is a great opportunity in Newark, and I am hopeful. I have spent a lot of time with the union, with the teachers and with Joe DelGrosso, who is a great guy and great leader. And some of the schools in Newark are just incredible.

“I have to be optimistic. I want the superintendent to listen to parents and teachers more. That’s very important, and I have said that to her privately and now publicly. But this is a great opportunity, and I hope Newark succeeds.”