AFT President Randi Weingarten kicked off the AFT national convention in Los Angeles July 11 by outlining a bold plan to both fight back and fight forward to reclaim the promise of America and create economic and educational opportunity for all.
In her keynote to more than 3,500 delegates, Weingarten outlined the coordinated attack facing working people, unions, public education and public services—by those who starve public institutions, criticize public institutions, demonize workers and unions, marginalize those who fight back, and peddle private alternatives.
"The promise of America is being undercut by people who devote their fortunes to decreasing our strength, to advancing the politics of division and to promoting economic policies that redistribute more income to fewer people," said Weingarten. But, she said, the AFT is better positioned than ever to take these challenges on.
"Despite the toughest environment unions have ever faced, I'm proud to announce that our ranks have grown since we last met. Today, we are larger than ever, a union of more than 1.6 million members," Weingarten said. Since the AFT's last convention, the union has grown by more than 64,000 members, making it one of the few unions growing and overcoming the challenges posed by harsh austerity and attacks from politicians such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. The AFT gained members in K-12 education, higher education, healthcare and public services, with membership growth in 16 states, 180 new locals in 20 states and 83 new units in 19 states.
Weingarten noted that educators have additional forces lining up to support them, lauding the creation of a new group, Democrats for Public Education, led by Democratic National Committee Vice Chair Donna Brazile, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, "who want to stand up for our students, for our educators and for public education."
The centerpiece of Weingarten's speech focused on the need to fight back against the attacks and fight forward to reclaim the promise of America by being solution-driven, community-engaged, member-mobilized and "badass"—a term gaining currency with educators frustrated with attacks on public education and the current direction of education policy. While acknowledging that the promise of America has been more an aspiration than a realization for many Americans throughout our history, Weingarten said that "what's been enduring and unifying is a vision of America based on a foundation of democracy and economic opportunity. You've heard it often: If you work hard, you'll have a decent life."
But the promise of America is more than that, said Weingarten. It is ensuring that every kid has a great neighborhood public school that is safe, collaborative and child-centered, not test-obsessed; that students can take advantage of college without being disadvantaged in the process. It is ensuring good healthcare and that Americans won't go broke if they get sick. It is being treated fairly at work, getting a real raise once in a while, and not having to choose between one's job and taking care of a sick child or aging parent. It is guaranteeing that a lifetime of hard work will culminate in a retirement with dignity, and that the voice of everyday people won't be drowned out by the political purchasing power of the wealthy.
Increasing Educational Opportunity
Weingarten outlined key policy solutions to increase educational opportunity, move from a test-and-punish to a support-and-improve accountability system, realize the promise and potential of the Common Core State Standards, and ensure due process for educators. She called out the testing obsession that, under the guise of accountability, is hijacking public schooling and said that too many officials are "reducing children to test scores and teachers to algorithms," especially by using value-added measures.
"They call what comes out of that black box a 'value-added measurement,' or VAM. I call it a sham," said Weingarten.
She continued, "Accountability shouldn't come down to "test-and-punish," and classroom teachers shouldn't be the only ones held to account. … A support-and-improve accountability system makes students, not data, the priority. It focuses on meaningful student learning and ensures adequate resources. It's built on a foundation of professionalism and capacity to get the job done."
On the Common Core, Weingarten said, "Some of you in this room think the standards should be jettisoned. Some support them because you've seen them help develop the deeper learning that is the antithesis of "drill-and-kill." Some of you—myself included—think they hold great promise but that they've been implemented terribly."
Weingarten reaffirmed her call for a moratorium on the high-stakes consequences for students and educators on Common Core-aligned assessments, and said that AFT members would debate the standards on the floor of the convention later in the weekend. She also announced a new AFT Innovation Fund grant for members who are dissatisfied with the standards or their implementation, and have a better solution to meet the needs of their students. And Weingarten called out Education Secretary Arne Duncan and state superintendents like New York's John King for dismissing the concerns of parents and educators about the implementation of the standards.
"We need a secretary of education who walks our walk, and fights our fight for the tools and resources we need to help children, said Weingarten. "And we are deeply disappointed that this Department of Education has not lived up to that standard."
In light of the recent Vergara decision, Weingarten launched a full-fledged defense of the need for due process.
"All workers should have due process," said Weingarten. "And educators, healthcare workers and public workers need it. How else do we have the freedom to stand up for what's right, for our kids, our patients and our communities? How else do we exercise our professional judgment and prevent going back to patronage systems, where your job depended on who you knew, not what you know?"
Weingarten made clear that not all due process laws are perfect and that, while we must protect against false allegations, there can be no tolerance for sexual misconduct. She also made clear that no teacher wants to work alongside someone not cut out for the profession.
"So I would hope that we could all agree that if someone can't teach, we should first help, and if that doesn't work, the person shouldn't teach. And it shouldn't take 10 years to litigate whether a teacher should be removed from the classroom," said Weingarten.
Weingarten specifically condemned the Vergara decision as the wrong prescription, saying that it "presupposes that for kids to win, teachers have to lose."
"The bitter irony is throwing out due process will make it harder to attract and keep great teachers," she said. "So yes, we will fight it in the courtroom and the court of public opinion."
Increasing Economic Opportunity
To create an economy that works for all, Weingarten outlined essential policy proposals that the AFT would advocate for, including growing the labor movement and reviving collective bargaining; increasing retirement security; easing the burden of student debt; funding a higher minimum wage, paid family leave, universal early childhood education, and full, equitable funding for all schools; and increasing investments in infrastructure and incentives to once again manufacture in America. She also highlighted the AFT's work to invest union member pension funds in infrastructure and create 150,000 good jobs.
Weingarten also called for all Americans to pay their fair share, including closing tax loopholes for carried interest and enacting a financial transaction tax.
Doing all of this, Weingarten said, we will reclaim the promise of America.
"When we fight forward—with the full strength of our union, united with community, prepared to call out problems and bring forth solutions, and willing to be a little bit badass—we not only fight forward, we move forward."
Weingarten closed out the speech with a call for members to be deeply engaged in politics, saying that elections matter—determining who nominates Supreme Court justices, and whether working people have elected officials who stand with them or attack their jobs and livelihoods.
[AFT press release/photos by Russ Curtis and Armando Arorizo]