Jan Resseger: Why Randi Weingarten Is Not a Symbol of What’s Dangerous in American Politics
Jan Resseger, writing in Ohio, responds to a recent New York Times piece. Reposted with permission.
I felt myself getting angry as I began skimming Jonathan Mahler’s New York Times Magazine article featuring Randi Weingarten. But as I read more carefully, I realized I had to give Mahler credit for recognizing Weingarten’s strong leadership on behalf of public schools and the school teachers she leads as president of the American Federation of Teachers—even in an article framing public school policy according to the standard Republican attack against the teachers unions:
“By now, Pompeo, Tim Scott, Marco Rubio, Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump and the rest of the Republican Party were busy elevating education to a central plank in its 2024 platform…. But Weingarten was building her own case. Public education was now itself a hyperpartisan issue, and she addressed it in hyperpartisan terms in a fiery speech at the National Press Club. Calling out by name some of the people who had demonized her since the pandemic, including Betsy DeVos, she described the ongoing effort to defund public schools as nothing less than a threat to ‘cornerstones of community, of our democracy, our economy and our nation.’ She pointed to studies that have shown that vouchers don’t improve student achievement, characterizing them as a back door into private and parochial schools that are not subject to the same federal civil rights laws as public institutions and can therefore promote discrimination. ‘Our public schools shouldn’t be pawns for politicians’ ambitions… They shouldn’t be destroyed by ideologues.’”
I have myself been delighted to see Randi Weingarten out there fighting for the educational rights of our children during the pandemic, pushing against the widespread blaming of teachers, and opposing the wave of culture war attacks on teachers and on honest and accurate curricula. She has been a far better defender of public schooling than Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.
But there is a bias in Mahler’s piece that kept me extremely uncomfortable. While Mahler gives Weingarten some credit for defending her side of the debate, he presents his analysis primarily from the point of view of of Mike Pompeo, Tim Scott, Marco Rubio, Ron DeSantis, and Donald Trump.
We learn about “pandemic learning loss” as measured in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, but we don’t learn that the drop in scores is likely temporary—a one time drop due to Covid disruption. We learn about teachers unions fighting for better protection during Covid—fighting for mask and vaccination mandates. It is implied that teachers unions were partly to blame for school closures, but we read nothing about the struggles of teachers to provide for students’ needs during remote learning, including some pretty difficult periods when many teachers were teaching kids remotely in the same classrooms where they were simultaneously working in-person with groups of kids whose families sent them to school.
Mahler implies that teachers unions are a monolith. He does not tell readers that teachers join their union locals, which operate independently from the national American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—the two large teachers unions.
The culture wars comprise a substantial part of Mahler’s profile. He explains that Tina Descovich in Brevard County, Florida and Tiffany Justice, of Indian River County spontaneously decided to join up and create their own parents’ rights group, Moms for Liberty, but he neglects some important background: Moms for Liberty, Parents Defending Education, and No Left Turn in Education are, in fact, Astroturf fronts for a national culture war campaign being mounted by groups like the Manhattan Institute and the Heritage Foundation, with funding from DonorsTrust dark money and Charles Koch. Additionally Mahler reports that the American Federation of Teachers supported Terry McAuliffe against Glenn Youngkin, who ran a culture war campaign against honest teaching about race in American history in the campaign for Governor of Virginia. It should not be a bit surprising that, as a labor union, the American Federation of Teachers can legally endorse and support candidates, and that the AFT endorsed the candidate who stood with the American Historical Association, the American Association of University Professors, and PEN America on the issue of the school curriculum.
Mahler devotes a significant part of his report to what he describes as the “AFT’s left-wing local, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).” He adds that “like-minded left-wing slates have since taken control of AFT locals in several other cities, too, including Los Angeles and Baltimore.” Many supporters of public education would embrace the cause of these big-city teachers without identifying themselves as left-wing. Here is how Mahler describes CTU’s agenda: “They see public schools’ ongoing struggles to educate their students as inseparable from the larger societal and economic issues facing their working-class members and the poor communities whose children dominate their classrooms.” Mahler quotes the Chicago Teachers’ Union’s recent past president, Jesse Sharkey: “We are trying to promote a brand of unionism that goes all out in its fight for educational justice and is brave about taking on conflicts.”
The problem with Mahler’s analysis is that today’s debates about public education policy are far more complex and nuanced than a fight between Randi Weingarten as a symbol of teacher unionism and Ron DeSantis and Glenn Youngkin. Those of us who have followed the history of education policy battles through the past two decades of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are now watching the far right and dark money campaigns driving culture war chaos across the state legislatures as a path to the expansion of school vouchers. Without any direct connection to teacher unions, many of us share the enlightened assessment that has been articulated by the Chicago Teachers Union.
Mahler mistakes the significance of the recent election of Brandon Johnson, who is a former teacher and more recently an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, as Chicago’s new mayor. Mahler sees Johnson’s victory as a symbol of the power of teachers unions: “When Johnson narrowly won, it was a stunning upset…. the teachers’ unions had effectively elected the mayor of America’s third-largest city, who was himself an avowedly progressive union organizer promising to raise taxes on the rich, reform the police and increase funding for the city’s schools…. It was those who had underestimated the political power of the unions who were mistaken.” In reality the meaning of Chicago’s mayoral election was more likely a rejection of nearly a quarter of a century of mayoral governance of Chicago’s public schools, of test-and-punish school accountability, of the explosive growth of charter schools in Chicago, and of Rahm Emanuel’s 2013 closure of 49 elementary schools in Chicago’s Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
In our alarmingly unequal society, where too frequently our children reside far apart in pockets of concentrated poverty or in pockets of wealth, we will not be able to close children’s opportunity gaps merely by improving the public schools alone. In a new book, The Education Myth, Jon Shelton, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, identifies the No Child Left Behind Act as the embodiment of a deeply flawed plan to equalize school achievement: “At root, the very premise of the bill—that punishing schools for the scores of their students would improve the schools’ performance—was simply flawed, particularly when school districts did not have the ability to raise students out of poverty or alleviate the trauma of racism…. NCLB ignored the broader economic structures that might lead a student to succeed or fail in school as well as the relationship between where a student got an education and what job would actually be available to them.” (The Education Myth, p. 173)
I am grateful that, in the cities where their members teach, some teachers union locals are working actively to support efforts to ameliorate child poverty. That is not a left-wing cause; it is instead a goal for us all to embrace. As we publicly debate the needs of our children and our public schools, it is wrong to define the conversation as a mere battle between right-wing Republicans and the teachers unions.