By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Weingarten is using raging controversies over charters and mayoral control to get the best contract she can at a time when there's no money in the till. The charter war is already dirty and destructive. And with Weingarten acting like an unguided missile, launching attacks on the mayor she must also woo, there's no telling where it'll go.
The UFT will soon celebrate its 50th anniversary. Other than a couple of years of temporary and muddled leadership at its start in 1960, it has been governed by only three presidents, and each of its long-lasting potentates—Albert Shanker, Sandra Feldman, and now Weingarten—has handed it off to a designated successor. Weingarten, who was Feldman's lawyer for years before she became a part-time teacher to position herself for the presidency, is about to do the same. Former carpenter Michael Mulgrew, the vice president for vocational and technical schools, is expected to take over, possibly as soon as this summer.
Like Shanker and Feldman, Weingarten is giving up her city post after using it for 11 years as a stepping stone to the presidency of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and will leave town only when she is sure she can install a disciple here that she can influence from Washington (no rule bars her from holding both titles).
What's baffling is why Weingarten has embroiled herself in a Harlem street fight below her $350,000-a-year pay grade. Her slugfest over charter schools in Harlem—where 24 of these public schools, run by nonprofit boards, are changing the education landscape—pits her against the mayor who's done more to promote charter schools than any local leader in the country, and who is promising 20 more schools by September. It also puts her at odds with the president she has to do business with in her new AFT job, since Barack Obama made clear in his first education speech how much he believes in the "broad leeway to innovate" that charters represent, noting that he's supported them since his days in the Illinois Senate.
The charter school war is also making Weingarten a target of the mostly minority parents of the 24,000 children in city charters, as well as the 44,000 on waiting lists. With 77 percent of charter school kids reading above grade level, the charter movement has an an activist army of thousands that cheered the mayor wildly at a March rally in Harlem.
The champions of charters believe the union is hostile because these numbers are embarrassingly better than those of traditional schools in the same districts, and because almost all city charters have opted out of the master contract that the city has with the UFT, a privilege granted under state law. Even a charter school that the UFT is running in partnership with a California-based sponsor of charters, Green Dot, is negotiating a school-based contract, having opted out of the citywide agreement, a striking admission of what a work-rule straitjacket it is. The contract regulates everything from the hiring, firing, transfering, and assignments of teachers to the length of the school day and year, and each teaching or non-teaching period.
Partly because of disputes like the one about charter schools, Weingarten told the Voice during a two-hour interview in late April that Bloomberg is "very agnostic on unionization" and that Chancellor Joel Klein is "generally very anti-unionization," a peculiar description of an administration whose historic salary hikes raised the top teacher paycheck to six figures.
Appropriately enough, it was Bloomberg who introduced Weingarten at her National Press Club debut in November, revealing in a gushing speech that he and his on-again-off-again union friend "share breakfast every couple of weeks at the same Greek diner." Despite the salary largesse and these public and private dalliances, Weingarten appears willing to take on the mayor in a fight against the facts, a challenge to a Bloomberg reform whose case makes itself.
As much as Weingarten tried in the Voice interview and a recent debate on NY1 to distance herself from her own dogfight, her claims that the union's opposition to charters is "much exaggerated" are betrayed by her bellicose actions. Weingarten's heavy-handed fingerprints, for example, were all over index cards with pre-written questions that were given to City Councilmembers at an April meeting of the City Council Education Committee about charters.
The cue cards, first revealed by gothamschools.org, urged the reliably compliant Council to grill charter supporters and pitch softballs at the union lobbyist who testified. In the tabloid firestorm that followed, Bloomberg charged that the stacked deck of questions didn't "pass the smell test." Weingarten said she was out of town, apologized, and promised in a television interview "to make some changes at the union to make sure that that never happens again." All she did, she concedes now, was assign a different public relations staffer, Brian Gibbons, to the team that lobbies the Council.
The Weingarten witness at the hearing, Dr. Leo Casey, who was Weingarten's social studies co-teacher when she put in her teaching time at a Brooklyn school in the 1990s, still spearheads the union's charter school response. His testimony, consistent with the cue cards, railed against the Bloomberg administration's charter plans, warning that they "would remake the very constitution of public education in New York City." Two Councilmembers at the hearing—comptroller candidates Melinda Katz and John Liu, who have received $19,000 in UFT donations over the years and are seeking the union's support for citywide office—asked questions that were very similar to the ones posed on the union crib sheets.