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Schools: The Disaster Movie

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But in April of this year, the two sides at last came together, in no small part because Weingarten had become enmeshed in the negotiations. To the reform crowd, the D.C. contract looks like a revolution and a template, complete with pay for performance, an end to seniority-based layoffs, and what amounts to the demise of tenure: If a teacher is rated “ineffective,” he or she will be canned immediately; a “minimally effective” rating two years in a row earns the same result.

Most astonishing to Rhee was how easily the contract was finally approved. “The entire time the union was fighting us, they said, ‘Our members are never gonna accept this’—then it passed by an 80 to 20 percent vote!” she exclaims.

Without Weingarten’s imprimatur, of course, the vote never would have happened at all. Even more unexpected and courageous was her role in the passage of a new ed-reform law in Colorado that would make at least 50 percent of teacher evaluations dependent on test scores. The law was enacted despite the adamant opposition of the National Education Association—the larger of the two national teachers unions, and also the less urban and more retrograde—but with the endorsement, after a few minor amendments, of Weingarten’s AFT.

Given all this, you might think that the self-styled unionist reformer would be taking a victory lap. You would be wrong. Instead, Weingarten has been poor-mouthing the D.C. contract. Over breakfast in Washington, she was at pains to argue that, all appearances to the contrary, the union had made no large concessions, that “tenure was preserved intact,” that the contract “isn’t the breakthrough that New Yorkers and others think it is.” (When I put these claims to Klein, he fairly snorted: “If there are no concessions in there, give it to me! I’ll take that concession-free contract tomorrow!”)

On other matters, too, Weingarten’s tone is anything but conciliatory. When it comes to those she ritually describes as “so-called reformers”—a group she says is populated mainly by “elitist Democrats”—she argues that they find it “fashionable” to “demonize teachers” and “scapegoat the union.” Her dyspeptic attitude toward “Superman,” she says, boils down to her belief that it “will give license to that kind of demagoguery” and “takes us in the wrong direction,” toward “the idea that all you have to do is put in an iconic figure [such as Canada] and everything will be fine.”

Many of Weingarten’s arguments here don’t remotely pass first inspection. Whatever its flaws, “Superman” casts no aspersions on teachers, only on their unions. (The idea that criticizing the latter isn’t the same as knocking the former cuts no ice with her: “Teachers and their union are essentially the same,” she says.) More to the point, her contentions fly in the face of the progress in which she has had a hand.

What explains Weingarten’s apparent schizophrenia is the balancing act she is forced to pull off by a membership split between moderates and militants. (Asked by Politico, Proust-questionnaire style, to name her favorite body part, she said, “Legs—because I have to walk a tightrope most of the time.”) In her stint at the UFT in New York, she honed a signature style whereby her substantive compromises were coupled with rhetorical ferocity. Now, on a grander stage, she is doing the same thing again, attacking reformers and “Superman,” and even distancing herself from her own achievements, to maintain her authority with her people while at the same time giving herself space to move in the direction of reform.

For some of the “Superman” co-conspirators, this is one of the main values of the film. “It gives Randi cover to say to her membership, ‘Guys, if we don’t concede on some of this stuff, we’re going to lose a lot more,’ ” Canada says. One of his allies makes the same point differently: “Everything is Hegelian here, and the dialectic has to be driven by pushing her hard. When Davis’s film comes out, people will get agitated, and she’ll have to tack even more to the center. Randi knows how fast the ground is shifting under her feet.”

“Superman” may indeed be the cause of some of the tectonic rumbling beneath Weingarten’s pumps. But the epicenter of the ed-reform earthquake isn’t in Hollywood—it’s in Washington, at the White House.

When Obama took up occupancy there, neither side in the ed-reform debate was sure what to expect. For decades, Democrats at the national level had been a wholly owned subsidiary of the unions. But Obama was booed on the campaign trail for supporting merit pay, and secured his party’s nomination without the support of the AFT, which sided with Hillary Clinton. His choice of Duncan, who’d run the Chicago public schools with a penchant for consensus between reformers and the unions, to lead the Department of Education was seen as a signal that Obama would seek to chart a middle course.


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