Florida may be "ground zero for every single market-based experiment" that imperils true school improvement, but the energy and commitment of local union leaders and activists in the state are proof positive that the AFT can meet these challenges—and refocus communities on a path to reclaim the promise of public education, AFT president Randi Weingarten told leaders and building representatives for the United Teachers of Dade this week.
Weingarten kicked off several weeks of visits to schools and affiliates around the country with an Aug. 12 address at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, where more than 400 teachers, security monitors, clerical staff and paraprofessionals gathered for back-to-school training. She was joined by United Teachers of Dade president Fedrick Ingram, Broward Teachers Union president Sharon Glickman and Florida Education Association president Andy Ford, who is also an AFT vice president.
The AFT president noted how Florida affiliates had done stalwart work on issues like retirement security while simultaneously fighting some of the most corrosive "divide and conquer" schemes, which operate with no transparency and under the guise of school reform. That sad fact became clear in the recent controversy surrounding Tony Bennett, the former Florida education commissioner.
Bennett exited his position this summer after revelations of a grade-fixing scandal in Indiana (where he previously served as state superintendent) and charges that cronyism and favoritism drove the school accountability program he instituted there. The AFT and its affiliates in Florida and Indiana have filed public information requests in both states for communications between Bennett and Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, the American Legislative Exchange Council and other groups.
The scandal-tainted accountability system reveals powerful forces "that are trying to make a profit [in public education] by demonizing and demeaning" the people who work in schools and by "looking to divide teachers and parents," Weingarten said. Those efforts will fail, the AFT president suggested, because surveys show that parents and educators want the same things for children, things like a rich curriculum and wraparound services. It's a key moment in education, she stressed, and "if we stand with parents, we can reclaim the promise of public education."
The message drew a standing ovation from the educators in the room, including Elaine Silny, a speech-language pathologist in Dade. Educators are tired "of being treated like pawns in the politics of education," said Silny. "We must stand together with our parents" to see positive action on everything from retirement security to professional training.
The often-contentious landscape of Florida education policy stood in sharp contrast to St. Louis schools, which Weingarten visited a day later. Over the past several years, the school system has seen progress thanks to a successful and sustained collaboration between AFT St. Louis, parents, the community and schools superintendent Kelvin Adams.
Nowhere was that more evident than in a recent school levy that made expanded early childhood education possible for children across the district. Today, the union and the district are creating a high-quality professional development program for early childhood educators—pre-K teachers and paraprofessionals—and this work is supported by a grant from the AFT Innovation Fund.
Accompanied by AFT St. Louis president Mary Armstrong, who is also an AFT vice president, Weingarten visited a special education classroom and met with early childhood educators and parents at Gateway Elementary School in St. Louis. A highlight of the visit was a session that allowed teachers in the building to upload and download information from the AFT-developed Share My Lesson online resource center.
The climate in the school system is impressively constructive and cooperative, said Weingarten. It is "an example of how to work together rather than trying to win arguments. I am so impressed by the hard work they are doing in St. Louis to reclaim the promise of public education."
Prior to the school visits, Weingarten took time to deliver a spirited message of solidarity at a United Mine Workers rally against Peabody Coal. "America's corporations can't turn their backs on those who grew America," Weingarten told the crowd, and that "promise is about as old as America itself." [Mike Rose/photos by Jerry Naunheim and Eileen Escarda]
Aug. 15, 2013