AFT’s Weingarten: We survived our battle with ‘billionaires and ideologues’

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten took what amounted to a victory lap on Thursday, telling union members they had survived a decade-long battle with “billionaires and ideologues.”

“To our enemies’ vexation, we are thriving,” Weingarten told attendees of the union’s conference in Washington D.C. 

“Remember the false narrative about public schools a decade ago — about so-called bad teachers, failing students, and a system supposedly so broken that privatization and austerity were the only answers? We’ve busted up those myths, one by one.”

The speech reflected the union’s confidence, which has been buoyed by widespread support for teacher strikes and walkouts over the past year, backlash toward charter schools, and, for now, the union’s ability to avoid a budget crisis in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Janus decision.

Still, the union can hardly claim total victory: charters have continued to grow, albeit more slowly, and they maintain political support among many black and Hispanic Democrats; a number of red states have passed legislation favorable to charters and private school vouchers; and Weingarten acknowledged that AFT has lost fee-payers in the wake of Janus.

“Ten years ago, Time magazine emblazoned its cover with this image of a school superintendent sweeping out so-called ‘bad teachers,’” Weingarten said, referring to former D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee’s December 2008 cover. “Today, presidential candidates are one-upping each other with their support of teachers and public schools.” 

A chorus of Democratic presidential hopefuls are calling for changes that align with union priorities, including increases in teacher pay and funding boosts for schools serving low-income students. Ten of them made their case last week at a forum hosted by the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, and the AFT has held its own events with seven of the candidates. 

In March, California Senator Kamala Harris announced her plan to increase teacher salaries by an average of $13,500. Former vice president Joe Biden’s first presentation of his education plan, including his proposal to triple Title I funding, was at an AFT event. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is calling for that same measure, while also saying that teachers should get paid at least $60,000 and that charter school growth should be sharply curtailed. 

The speech came the same day the AFT filed a lawsuit against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The union is claiming educators have been improperly rejected from the federal government’s public service loan forgiveness program.