Jewish Leaders of the Education Debate

Four Key Players Who Can Change Our Nation's Schools


By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published February 11, 2013, issue of February 08, 2013.
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1. Randi Weingarten: The Boss

Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, is the most important teachers union official in the country. A New York-bred gay Jew, Weingarten bears the legacy of Al Shanker, the Lower East Side Jewish kid who first made teachers unions powerful. It was Shanker who led the most contentious and divisive strike in teachers union history when tens of thousands of teachers shut down New York City schools for a month in 1968.

Echoing some of Shanker’s legendary ferocity, Weingarten has struck back at efforts to vilify teachers unions. Weingarten argues that state education budget cuts, not teacher salaries, are to blame for school money troubles.

“There’s a perniciousness directed to teachers unions, simply because we are still the most densely organized group of people in America,” Weingarten told the Forward in 2010.

Weingarten can also be conciliatory. She’s not inherently opposed to the notion of charter schools, a cause largely championed by anti-union reformers. In fact, when she served as president of the New York City teachers union, she had the union open charter schools of its own.

“Everybody understands that our education system has to change,” Weingarten said. “But what you now have is this huge competition for dollars [and] government officials and so-called reformers who would rather point the finger at teachers and their unions because they can’t politically point the finger anywhere else.”


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