Michael Bloomberg introduced national teachers union head Randi Weingarten at the National Press Club in D.C. this morning, stressing what he described as a cooperative relationship that should be duplicated elsewhere, and presenting the city’s school system as a national model.
The mayor credited Weingarten for, among other things, helping to make possible mayoral control of city schools, and showing a willingness to discuss traditional “third rail” issues. He also praised her, in a way that he said was sure to make her “gag,” for her ability to work with frequent nemesis Schools Chancellor Joel Klein to achieve improvements in the system.
He also made a brave attempt at education-policy-based humor.
Here are the remarks as delivered, courtesy of the mayor’s office:
“Chuck, thank you and good morning to everyone. I’m delighted to see such a big turnout. Usually, Randi is a proponent of no more than 20 listeners to every speaker. She even tries to write that into our contracts. But now that she is here in Washington, she’s adopted the policy of our senior Senator from New York – ‘Leave no microphone behind.’”
“So if you think that this is the last time you’re going to hear from her, I’m sorry, I’ve got news for you, we in New York don’t have to listen but you here in Washington do. Anyway, we are here to discuss the outcome of this year’s historic election, one that Washington is still buzzing about and the transition teams are working so hard on. It really is bringing ‘change that we can believe in.’ So Randi: Congratulations on your election.”
“I really am happy for you, all kidding aside. It’s the perfect job. It calls on all of your amazing talents and your wide experience. It also means that I won’t have to negotiate directly with you anymore. At least once you stop being both AFT president and head of the UFT. Isn’t there some kind of violation of holding two jobs at the same time? I mean, after all, I’m just trying to hold on to one job.
“The truth is that Randi can be a really tough negotiator. For example, about a year ago, when New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and I put our proposal for school-based bonuses on the bargaining table with the UFT, Randi told me, ‘Well, in New York City we’ve already got performance pay and that’s why the Mayor makes a dollar a year.’
“The fact is, we did come to an agreement on that bonus plan and it’s one, I think, that really does set a precedent for school systems across the country for rewarding good teachers for working in high-needs schools. And I think it is an example of how, by labor and management working together in New York, we’ve not only increased teachers’ salaries by 43 percent since 2002, we’ve also charted a course for giving our students the best big-city schools in the nation. And in my opinion, the relationship between our City government and the UFT – press coverage notwithstanding – shows just what can be achieved by working together.
“Unions have to be willing to be flexible and cities have to be willing to treat teachers like the professionals that they are – including paying them well. And I think that is the key to making progress; both things have to be true. In 2002, Randi provided critical support for our efforts to achieve mayoral responsibility for the City’s schools. And what we’ve accomplished in our schools since then: from work rule reforms to lengthening the school day for students who need it; to, for the first time, giving all our schools a fair budget deal to launching the school-based bonus plan that I mentioned earlier. All these measures show that, while the interests of school management and teachers’ unions aren’t always the same, and we won’t always agree on everything, we can find ways to work together and that includes our ability to find common ground on matters that have long been considered so-called ‘third rail’ issues.
“Schools everywhere need a big infusion of that kind of cooperation. This morning Randi is going to discuss ‘making the right choices about education and the economy.’ These choices really are critical to our nation’s future. Our schools are the engines that drive our economy but for too long, that engine, I think, has been stuck in neutral. And that’s why we’re losing high-skill jobs to nations that are more aggressively sharpening their competitive advantages through education.
“If we’re going to change that, we must have the courage to take a bold new approach to reforming education – a willingness to take good ideas from every part of the political spectrum, to address such issues as fundamentally improving the attractiveness – and the accountability – of the teaching profession. And I believe that the kind of innovative changes that we’ve achieved in New York City can be a model for the new Congress and for President-elect Obama – and such changes have to be a top priority.
“There’s a compact between teachers and government and that is the public has to be willing to reach into their pocket and tax themselves to pay our teachers fairly. We want the best and the brightest and I’ve never been ashamed about saying people that work hard and really make a difference deserve to be compensated, and I think compensated better than those who don’t. We all want the better things in life. None of us go into education, or into public service, to get rich; they are two professions where you cannot do that. On the other hand, I’ve always wanted the person at the front of the classroom to be worried about how to improve the educational experience for the students in front of him or her and not worried about how they’re going to pay their mortgage or whether they can afford a vacation this year.
“So this morning, I am pleased to introduce someone who really is ready, I think, to put educational reform on the front burner. She and I have worked together. We share breakfast every couple of weeks at the same Greek diner, although I will say she reached into her pocketbook to pick up the tab once. And she does make an awful lot more than I do. She’s someone who has already shown the vision and the willingness to help lead our nation’s schools in new directions; she’s done it in New York City.
“And if anybody questions whether Randi Weingarten knows what to do to improve education and to help her members – which, incidentally, is a union leader’s real job – just take a look at New York City. In New York City we have roughly 80,000 teachers. When I came into office we would lose about 12,000 a year to retirements and to resignations and we had trouble filling those 12,000 slots with certified teachers. Today we have 50-odd thousand teachers a year from around the country who apply to teach in the New York City school system and we only have about 5,000 vacancies on a base of 80,000. So it says that among the teachers, they recognize that there’s an opportunity to really teach, they recognize there’s an opportunity to develop their skills, and they recognize there’s an opportunity to live in a great City and be fairly paid. And a lot of it is because of two people working together, Randi Weingarten and Joel Klein. They don’t always get along and Randi will gag when I say that but I really do think that both of them have made enormous contributions to the future of this country and particularly the future of the 1.1 million schoolchildren who every day show up in the New York City public school system. So let me present the woman of vision – you’re stuck with her in Washington, don’t send her back – the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten.”