Randi Weingarten, the newly appointed president of the American Federation of Teachers, launched a strong attack on the No Child Left Behind Act in her inaugural speech at the union’s biennial convention. She referred to the act as a "four-letter word" for many union members. Weingarten, expected to play a prominent role in the reauthorization of the federal law, stated that "overhauling" it would be the union’s most pressing concern.
She argued that the NCLB has outlived its usefulness and is too broken to be fixed. Weingarten criticized the fact that the law, conceived by accountants, drafted by lawyers, and distorted by ideologues, is very unpopular among teachers. She expressed the need for a new vision for schools in the 21st century, one that focuses on closing the achievement gap and ensuring accountability.
Weingarten, who succeeds Edward J. McElroy as president of the 1.4 million-member union, was elected unopposed, alongside Antonia Cortese as secretary-treasurer and Lorretta Johnson as executive vice president. Notably, Johnson became the first paraprofessional union leader to hold one of the top three posts in the AFT. Weingarten will also continue to lead the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City affiliate.
The election of Weingarten, Cortese, and Johnson marks a historic milestone in trade-union history as this is the first time a major union will be led by three women. Additionally, two of the top three elected officials in the National Education Association are also women. This may indicate significant differences between the AFT and the larger NEA, particularly as the NEA recently developed a plan to fix the federal education law.
In her speech, Weingarten called for a federal law that supports community schools serving disadvantaged children, providing comprehensive services and activities for both students and their families. These schools would offer extended hours, after-school and evening programs, as well as childcare, medical clinics, and counseling services tailored to the community’s needs. Weingarten emphasized the importance of exposing every child to a rich core curriculum, ensuring teacher quality through competitive salaries, professional compensation models, and embedded professional development.
Weingarten also shared her personal motivation as a unionist, recounting the experience of her own father being laid off as an electrical engineer. She never forgot the pain, humiliation, and tears in his eyes that shaped her commitment to fighting for workers’ rights.
Overall, Weingarten’s speech signifies a strong stance against the current state of the No Child Left Behind Act and presents a vision for a more inclusive and effective education system that prioritizes student success and supports teachers.
Ms. Weingarten acknowledged that peer review can be intimidating for those who have not yet experienced it. She expressed that it may feel like teachers are giving up their role in the due process, but assured that this is not the case. She emphasized her frustration with principals who dismiss teachers and stated that the resolution is aimed at providing assistance to teachers and reclaiming the dignity of the teaching profession.
Additionally, delegates agreed to an increase in dues, with a portion of the funds allocated to the Solidarity Fund. This fund is dedicated to fighting against local initiatives that aim to reduce education funding and teacher benefits. Starting in September, members will pay $15.35 monthly to the national union, a slight increase from the previous amount of $14.70. This amount will further rise to $16 in the following September.
Moving on to presidential politics, the delegates had the honor of a personal visit from Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. She urged them to mobilize their efforts in support of Barack Obama, her former rival and the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate. Senator Clinton warned of the potential consequences of another four years under Republican rule and emphasized the importance of the AFT’s 1.4 million members in ensuring victory.
Senator Obama, appearing live via satellite from San Diego, echoed his support for rectifying the broken promises of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). He also expressed his endorsement of performance pay and charter schools, acknowledging that some AFT locals have already implemented performance-pay plans. Senator Obama commended the AFT for their representation of charter school teachers and support staff and acknowledged the value of well-designed public charter schools. It is worth noting that under Ms. Weingarten’s leadership, the UFT has established two charter schools in New York City.