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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.

By Jay Mathews  | November 10, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
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Wild flight of fancy?

Trail balloon?

Brilliant presaging?

Posted by: efavorite | November 10, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

No way in hell would Fenty ever pick Weingarten. He hates unions and labor groups too much for that. Now there is a possibility that the next mayor might choose Weingarten and hopefully that next mayor will be Michael Brown.

Posted by: starclimber9 | November 10, 2009 11:44 AM | Report abuse

This is not reporting but a rumor mill which it appears to be the approved style of The Washington Post for education.

. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards,

Apparently the Washington Post no longer has any standards for the Washington Post.

Posted by: bsallamack | November 10, 2009 2:07 PM | Report abuse

I work in a school district of 50,000 students, 3700 teachers where our current superintendent is a former teachers union president. It has worked great from both sides. Best superintendent I've seen in 20 plus years as a teacher, the school board loves her too.

Posted by: mamoore1 | November 10, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

Are you sure you're feeling ok Mr. Mathews? Because I can't remember reading anything filled with so much tortured logic and deluded thinking in my life. Of course Randi Weingarten will never be the Chancellor of the DCPS but thanks for letting all of us know that she's a lesbian. That's always an important consideration in matters like this. Certainly it's an area where Michelle Rhee is want.

Posted by: natturner | November 10, 2009 3:28 PM | Report abuse

for bsallamack---No rumors involved. I made it clear no one has ever suggested to me that Weingarten would be the next chancellor. It was a thought experiment, which columnists are allowed to do, and which I think shine light in interesting places. I suspect a few people back in 2003 had similarly wild thoughts about the possibility of an experienced state senator in Illinois being elected US President in five years.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 10, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

You comments are always on target to create a spirited discussion. While Rhee hasn't resigned, Fenty may be on his way out and I'm not convinced anyone else would be willing to surprise us with your personal selection, who is actually quite interesting. Might be cool to let Weingarten see what it's like to wear the shoe on the other foot. Maybe she would be able to get something done, though personally, I'm a great fan of Ms Rhee and hope she stays put for awhile longer.

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | November 10, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

For some reason teachers are always left out of "reform" movements (probably because most of us are female) but it's always fun to think about what might happen if teachers were asked how to improve the schools. If Ms. Weingarten became chancellor, we might see:

Educational prerequisites for all children (nutrition, preschool, health care etc.)

Teachers and parents included in managing schools, including charters;

Collaboration between teachers and administration by making everyone at school level a teacher (principals would be "head teachers");

Head teachers elected by faculty;

Small classes;

Basics, including computers, for every classroom;

Excellent professional development center for all teachers;

Art, P.E. and music teachers for children;

Librarian, nurse and social worker in each school;

Stipends for each classroom so teachers will not have to spend their own money on materials;

Peer assistance for teachers who need help;

Aides to keep behavior problems from disrupting instruction;

Aides to help learning disabled children;

Charters opened and managed by teachers;

Developmentally appropriate instruction for children;

Fully qualified teachers for every classroom (no teachers on "waivers");

Fair testing for children (no peeking or gaming the system!);

Fair evaluation of teachers;

Enrichment for children before and after school and during vacations;

Due process for teachers, as required by law.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | November 10, 2009 6:02 PM | Report abuse

I forgot to add:

Institute "bare bones" administration at district office. I read somewhere that 50% of all educational dollars goes to administration. Could this be true? If so, getting rid of a lot of these highly paid bureaucrats would free a lot of money for the classroom.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | November 10, 2009 7:20 PM | Report abuse

Real Trade Unionists never give up their principles. If Randy Weingarten is successful in public service she will be one of the few that have in American Labor history. I hope she does!

Posted by: jshantz1 | November 10, 2009 9:37 PM | Report abuse

for bsallamack---No rumors involved. I made it clear no one has ever suggested to me that Weingarten would be the next chancellor. It was a thought experiment, which columnists are allowed to do, and which I think shine light in interesting places. I suspect a few people back in 2003 had similarly wild thoughts about the possibility of an experienced state senator in Illinois being elected US President in five years.

Posted by: Jay Mathews
Would it be a thought experiment if you suggested that Ms. Rhee and Ms. Weingarten should have an affair and that might improve the school system?

Posted by: bsallamack | November 11, 2009 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, the reaction to this idea is more an indictment of "union leaders we have known" than a recognition of the potential for enlightened leadership by outstanding teacher leaders who also happen to be union leaders. Where they exist, everyone wins.

Posted by: dclcaled | November 11, 2009 9:51 PM | Report abuse

I agree with your points, Linda. I think we need to add an evaluation system for principals and other administration staff as well.

Posted by: aby1 | November 12, 2009 1:32 PM | Report abuse

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