AFT President’s Austin Q&A Explores Perception and Reality of Public Schools and School Reform

AFT President Randi Weingarten, in Austin last week for two national education conferences plus school visits involving our Education Austin local affiliate, took time as well for an interesting Q&A session on education issues with the editors of the capital city’s main newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman. Over the past weekend excerpts from that session were featured on the paper’s editorial page. Here’s a sampling of what Weingarten had to say:

Is it myth or fact that the public (parents and taxpayers) is losing confidence in public schools?

I think we have by [and] large the public’s support in public education but I don’t think it is the anchor that it was 20 or 30 years ago. If you look at the evidence and the facts, public schools are doing better now than they’ve ever done before. The dropout rate is less than it’s ever been; the graduation rate is higher than it’s ever been; the test scores are higher than they’ve ever been; but you can’t convince anybody who hasn’t looked at the data of all that because of all of the negativity (surrounding public education).

How do you change that perception; what do public schools need to change to better serve students and the community?

You want to have great neighborhood schools that are safe, welcoming, great collaborative places. You also want multiple pathways, because sometimes a neighborhood public school can’t do everything, so you have early childhood programs and I think you also need great CTE career tech ed programs that help prepare kids for jobs of today. Then, well-prepared teachers who are really supportive, have the time to collaborate and have the tools to differentiate instructional needs of kids. And an engaged curriculum that has to include art and music. And the last thing is wrap-around services, because poverty is an issue and you can’t pretend that it isn’t.

What is the role of charter schools?

I don’t see a role for for-profit charter schools; this is public money. So, the not-for-profit charters, at this point in time, if they were working within a public school system and working with the original intent of trying to create more choices within that public system, and those choices don’t negatively impact community schools or neighborhoods that were impoverished or things like that, then I do think that there is a role. And, it is not a competitive role.

This brings us to, when you talk of choice, to single-gender schools. What is your view on that?

I happen to love them. But it really has to be voluntary. Kids cannot be forced any way, shape or form into a single-sex school. It can’t be a zoned school. The moment it becomes mandatory … frankly how does that not violate Title 9?

You’ve recently pointed out that 90 percent of schools have heightened security since the Newtown, Conn., shootings. Do you believe that law enforcement officials with Taser guns are appropriate security measures in a school setting?

I was in Newtown that Sunday afternoon. The devastation. Those teachers would not have come back if they did not have an armed officer in their midst that whole six months after, because they were scared. And you could totally and completely understand that. We have taken the position, and I think rightly, that school communities have to decide for themselves whether they have armed police officers as a part of their security system in schools. And that is going to be a jurisdiction by jurisdiction decision. But if you have someone armed in a school, you better be damn sure that that person knows what he/she is doing. And we’ve taken a rock-solid position, that we don’t want teachers armed.