Teacher union's Randi Weingarten for next D.C. schools chief
I like D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. She is a controversial figure, but her efforts to raise standards and give principals more power are smart and necessary. Unfortunately, our Reliable Source column reveals she is engaged to a handsome fellow in California, Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. If she is unable to resist the temptation to move to my home state, who would replace her? My idea, not so insane once you think about it, is Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
I hear your gasps of astonishment, your muttered conclusions that the Redskins' awful season has finally sent me over the edge. I realize that no big city school system has ever given its top job to a teacher's union leader. I understand many people will cringe at the conflict of interest if the former union chief (she will have to resign her current job to succeed Rhee) stood up and strolled over to the D.C. school administration side of the teachers contract negotiating table.
But if Rhee did decide to leave (and I have no inside knowledge suggesting that she's planning to), I don't think Weingarten is a political impossibility as a replacement. First, Mayor Adrian Fenty, who obviously loves surprising people, could see the startling, news-generating appointment as a way to push to the back pages all those stories about city contracts with his friends. His selection of Rhee was the most unconventional choice for a city school leader I had ever seen, and picking Weingarten would be an even bigger shock, a frontpage story across the nation.
In D.C., where politics is deep blue, who in power will make a fuss about picking Weingarten, a member of the Democratic National Committee, a lesbian and a skilled politician who knows just how to talk to council members? The teacher and union resistance to Rhee would evaporate once they saw one of their own in the chancellor's seat, although they might suffer from dizzy spells for awhile.
Would Weingarten take the job? She will, I am sure, laugh at the whole idea. But if Fenty played this wild card, I don't think she would say no. She is a practical and imaginative leader who likes to defy conventional wisdom herself. She endorsed Republican George Pataki for re-election as governor of New York in 2002. She set up union-run charter schools in New York despite many union members distaste for that reform. She even signed a contract with the New York City school system allowing payment of teacher bonuses if students's test scores rose, another no-no to many unionists.
Most importantly, running the D.C. schools would give her a chance to demostrate in the most visible way her oft-expressed view that teacher unions are just as committed to raising the achievement of students as anybody. She has already accepted money from big charter school supporters many of her members do not like, such as Bill and Melinda Gates, for her union's new program to encourage teacher innovations.
Her career is quite unusual, a sign of a person who thinks for herself. She first worked for the AFT's New York local as a lawyer. After five years she started teaching at Clara Barton High School in Crown Heights, first as a substitute and then as a full-time history teacher before moving into the union local's leadership.
The new job would, of course, put her in something of a bind, which might make her appointment palatable even to Republicans in congress and union critics among the education punditry. She would have to oppose any union demands that got in the way of improving learning for inner city kids. She would lose the ability to insist the union stance would help learning, and then blame the school district for dropping the ball if that didn't happen. If after a few years D.C.'s numbers had not gotten better, it would be a blow not only to her reputation, but to that of the union to which she has devoted her life for 23 years.
We education writers love chancellors who make news. We will miss Rhee a lot if she decamps to the Golden State. But Weingarten running the D.C. schools would be an even bigger story, and isn't our happiness important? I'm not betting real money that this will happen, but it has the makings of a remarkable event---good for us, good for Weingarten, and I think good for D.C. school children and the future of school labor relations in the United States.
Perhaps you have your own nominee for next D.C. schools chancellor? Just post a comment with your choice and your reasoning, and I will blog on the best of them this afternoon.
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