After playing defense for the better part of two decades, the presidents of the nation’s two teachers unions took the stage at the Democratic National Convention along with other union leaders to speak to Hillary Clinton’s labor bona fides. The two union presidents were some of the earliest and fiercest supporters of Clinton’s presidential bid, and in a speech on the opening night of the convention, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten talked about what she hopes they’ll get in return.
“She’ll reset education policy to focus on skills like creativity and critical thinking, not more testing,” said Weingarten at the July convention in Philadelphia.
While teachers unions have long been a key pillar in Democratic Party, they’ve been on the outs with President Barack Obama’s education department. The administration doubled down on Republican President George W. Bush’s educational agenda of holding schools accountable for students’ test scores. Under the administration’s $3 billion School Improvement Grant program, for example, struggling schools had options to implement new accountability systems for teachers, remove staff, be closed or be converted into charter schools, the vast majority of which employ non-unionized staff.*
These policies devastated some local teachers unions, including Philadelphia’s, which lost 10,000 members during the Obama and Bush administrations. Weingarten expects Clinton to totally upend this agenda, and hopes she won’t reappoint Education Secretary John King, who was just confirmed by the senate in March.**
The Hechinger Report sat down with Weingarten during the last night of the convention to go deeper into what she expects from the next president.
Question: There seems to be a lot more talk about early education and higher education during this convention. Why do you think that is? What are the K-12 policies you would hope to see from a President Clinton?
Answer: She’s actually done four major speeches on K-12 education. It hasn’t been covered. I think it’s because it’s not controversial because it’s rooted in the evidence of what works for kids. She calls it TLC: teaching, learning and community. It’s about how do we ensure we have a great teaching force, and how do we nurture them and how do we lift them up? How do we have high standards, but also make sure we meet the needs of individual kids, including kids with special needs and kids who are limited English proficient?
She’s talking about how we need to ensure that we address the needs of communities through community schools and wraparound programs. She wants to end the education wars and really roll up her sleeves and do what works in education. She has a plan pre-K through college, but because of the controversies that have happened in the past, people focus on higher education and pre-K as opposed to her K-12 policy. If you look at the platform for the Democratic Party, it’s the most progressive in terms of education that we’ve seen for as long as I can remember. You get the controversies on the fringes, as opposed to what we need to do to ensure that public education is sacrosanct again.
Q: One area that has continued to come up is desegregation, though maybe more as a victory of the past, do teachers and unions have a role in desegregation?
A: It’s unbelievable that 60 years after the Brown v. Board of Education, we are more highly segregated than desegregated. It has a lot to do with the economy, with the fact that our housing patterns are more and more segregated; it’s about transportation issues, affordable housing, and persistent poverty. So you see this increased segregation, and we need to bust that up. Look, people are very leery of going back to busing, but what if we had multiple opportunities within a public education system: magnet schools, early college, career tech education schools and other kinds of programs that capture children’s imagination. If parents have choices of great public school programs and particularly great neighborhood public schools, they will opt for that.
Q: I think we can all agree it’s been a tumultuous eight years for teachers and unions in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago, do you see that changing under either a Clinton or Trump presidency?
A: Look, President Obama in the last year has had a mea culpa about the fixation on testing but we have really flawed policies. In the aftermath of the great recession, the worst recession in 80 years, it became an excuse to defund our schools, using austerity to not fund children. When times were tough places like Minnesota actually funded kids and you see how good their economy is compared to places like Wisconsin that defunded kids. So there was austerity, test fixation, and then closing of schools and privatizing instead of asking, how do we meet the needs of kids where they are? How do we spark their creativity and critical thinking? How do we nurture a teaching force and treat it the way we talk about it? All of that takes investment. Part of it is local issues, part of it is national issues.
I so hope she is elected president because the other guy is a dangerous demagogue who would just cut education. He would actually just try to privatize it like with Trump University and try to fleece people up and down the line. So hopefully she’ll get there and if she does I think she’ll help end the education wars. I think she’ll help use the bully pulpit nationally to actually fix, not destabilize, public schools in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit.
Q: Would you like to see John King stay, or who would be your dream pick for education secretary?
A: There are several people who would be eminently qualified, who know education. John King should not stay on as education secretary. I mean, I think John has tried to really be a different kind of secretary than Arne Duncan, but you know, I think that what’s happening here is that she needs to pick somebody who is very much embedded in the ideas that she brings forward. Someone who is her pick, who she trusts, who she has a direct relationship with.
*This story has been updated to clarify the details of the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grant program.
**This story has been updated to reflect that a new president would have to reappoint, not remove, Education Secretary John King.