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Teacher Leader Defends Public Schools, Union Efforts22:08

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A teachers union rally in Washington, D.C., in 2009. (mar is sea Y/Flickr)
A teachers union rally in Washington, D.C., in 2009. (mar is sea Y/Flickr)

The president of the American Federation of Teachers defended public schools and their unionized teachers on Radio Boston, and spoke skeptically of the success of the charter school movement.

"Let's look at the evidence. We now have 20 years of evidence on charter schools," said Randi Weingarten, who cited a study that says that 83 percent of charters nationally perform as well or worse than neighboring public schools. "We've spent a lot of oxygen on a concept that hasn't actually helped us get to what we have to do for our kids."

Speaking Thursday after visiting the Edwards School and the Boston Teachers Union School, Weingarten said she supports charter schools as a way to test outcomes, but maintained that top states and countries that are outpacing America's education system are "pretty much all unionized."

Teachers unions remain among the most powerful unions in the country, but the ground is shifting beneath them.

The public is demanding better schools, cash-strapped states are challenging costly collective bargaining agreements and the Obama administration is pushing reforms long opposed by the unions. These include measures like more charter schools, linking teacher pay to teacher performance, changing seniority rules and making it easier to fire bad teachers.

Massachusetts itself approved 16 new charter schools in February.

Weingarten opposes this "competitive, polarized" environment existing between public schools and other schools. And she says unions are stepping up to the plate to try to reform tenure and teacher evaluations.

But teachers unions are under attack by many critics. Weingarten says unions are being unfairly targeted and they're just trying to establish adequate tools and conditions for teachers — and their students — to thrive.

"All these folks say, 'Teachers are the most important in-school factor.' And then in the next breath, when teachers say, 'Well this is what I need and my union is trying to get this in collective bargaining or in some way,' they say, 'Off with your head. You're just looking for protection.' "

Weingarten also says teachers are being disproportionately targeted due to pervasive budget crises. Citing average public sector pension levels of $22,000 per year, she said teachers merely want to obtain "economic dignity" with pay levels.

This news story was derived from a larger conversation about teachers unions' role in reforming public education. For that conversation, click on the "Listen Now" button at the top of the page.


This segment aired on March 31, 2011.

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