NEW YORK CITY — A single word is all that’s needed for teachers’ union head Randi Weingarten to describe what worries her most as American children return to school for what will be a third pandemic year: “Everything.”
It may not be an especially encouraging admission, but nor is it exactly a surprising one. Teacher shortages, learning loss, curriculum wars, the lingering fear of the coronavirus and the ever-present fear of school shootings are just some of the challenges educators, parents and children are confronting as summer turns into fall.
As the head of the American Federation of Teachers, with its 1.7 million members and immense sway within the Biden administration, Weingarten knows she’ll face especially tough scrutiny if the 2022-23 school year is marked by disruption and disorder.
“I wish I had 10% of the power and influence attributed to me,” Weingarten told Yahoo News in a wide-ranging conversation at a coffee shop near her upper Manhattan home on a late August afternoon. “You have 50 million students. You have 16,000 school districts. You have thousands of people making decisions.”
Decentralized as American schooling may be, there is not a more influential — or controversial — educator in the United States than Weingarten. She has been praised for pushing to reopen schools and blamed for keeping them closed. Conservatives revile her for an unapologetic commitment to social justice, as well as a conviction that public-sector unions are central to the broader fight for American democracy.
“As a union of public service employees,” she said at her first national convention as president in 2008, “we are Public Enemy Number One for those who take pot shots at the public schools, the labor movement and the very concept of government serving a greater good.”
Education secretary Miguel Cardona is a close associate. The Trump political strategist Steve Bannon once invited her to dinner, in an unlikely attempt at intellectual and political courtship. Like most of the nation’s most powerful figures, she seems to live on the high-speed Acela train between Washington and New York—and on Twitter, where she is frequently an unscripted and opinionated presence.
In real life, the voluble and energetic 64-year-old makes no apologies for exercising political power, arguing that policy outcomes cannot be achieved by other means. “Policy gets done through politics,” she says, her classic New York accent undiminished by status or time. “People have to be involved in politics to make policy.”
She becomes especially animated in talking about how Republicans treat teachers like “completely disposable widgets” who cannot be trusted to do the jobs they were trained for. That distrust is not necessarily new, but the lurid accusations of “grooming” children, proffered by the likes of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, are.
“It’s a malevolent, disingenuous, insidious, disgusting thing to say about a teacher,” Weingarten says. Her voice rises, her hands chop and thrust, at one point slamming against the metal scaffolding that flanks our outdoor table. In a moment of self-awareness, she looks over to a young woman at a nearby table and apologizes. It will be the only apology she offers in nearly two hours of conversation.
Even as union power waned across the nation throughout the Obama and Trump years, Weingarten established herself as an increasingly prominent broker within an increasingly technocratic Democratic Party. A famous photograph from 2019 shows Weingarten leaning on the shoulder of then-candidate Joe Biden during a Houston town hall. His arm is draped over her shoulder. Their hands clasp, and they are both smiling.
Critics say that Weingarten used her influence to change Biden administration guidelines for reopening schools, thus confining children to the disastrous experiment that was remote learning for much longer than necessary. The full extent of that experiment is only now coming into view, with recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress standardized test showing that 9-year-olds lost two decades of gains in math and reading during the pandemic.
Weingarten disputes the charge of being pro-closure. “It’s complete bulls—t,” she says, blaming then-President Trump for blustering about reopening schools without actually doing anything to reopen them.
“It’s completely false. And it’s the kind of propaganda and demonization that they like to do,” Weingarten says, pointing out that the AFT first released reopening guidelines in April 2020, when the vast majority of schools across the country remained closed. Those guidelines, however, included stipulations like six feet of space between students, making them utterly unrealistic for most school districts.
“We did the best we could,” Weingarten argues. Again, an unsatisfying answer. Again, a tough pandemic truth. The disrepair of American schools was well known to American teachers, who listened to promises of ventilation upgrades with understandable skepticism. When this reporter taught in Bushwick, Brooklyn, during the mid-aughts, landing a classroom with windows that opened was akin to winning the lottery. Water fountains were ranked by the color of water they produced.
Weingarten always defended her union members, but she never made claims like her National Education Association counterpart Becky Pringle, who predicted in the fall of 2020 that 50,000 children would die if schools were reopened. In the pandemic’s two-and-a-half years, 910 children between the ages of 5 and 18 have died from COVID-19, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Nor did she argue, as Los Angeles teachers union leader Cecily Myart-Cruz did, that a benefit of remote learning created no real setbacks. “It’s OK that our babies may not have learned all their times tables,” Myart-Cruz offered as reopening anxiety was mounting. “They learned resilience. They learned survival. They learned critical-thinking skills. They know the difference between a riot and a protest. They know the words insurrection and coup.
Instead, Weingarten subtly moderated her positions, becoming increasingly vociferous about the need to return to the classroom, especially after vaccines became available in late 2020. A glowing profile in the New York Times in late 2021 can be seen as a testament to her ability to read political currents without forsaking her ideological commitments.
As the 2022-23 school year approached, Weingarten argued that masks were no longer necessary, another shift that put her out of step with progressive educators.
“The science constantly changed,” Weingarten says. “And then you had politics polluting the environment. It created a lot of fear.”
Detractors say much of the fear was stoked by the unions themselves. And while “the science” did change, it was apparent within weeks of the pandemic’s landfall in the United States that children rarely experienced serious or fatal bouts of COVID-19. By early summer, schools had reopened in parts of East Asia and Europe without serious incident.
The right-wing attacks against Weingarten have continued, many of them proffered by outlets like Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, all of which are owned by conservative mogul — and Republican kingmaker — Rupert Murdoch. After the NAEP results were made public on Sept. 1, a Journal editorial laid the blame at her feet with an editorial titled, “Randi Weingarten Flunks the Pandemic.”
Weingarten does not downplay the learning loss caused by the pandemic. But she also sees attacks like those emanating from Murdoch’s outlets as an affirmation of what she said when she became AFT president in 2008. “I understand what the right wing is doing here,” Weingarten says. “They hate public schools, and they hate unions. They always have.”
In 2021, the opposition to remote learning morphed into resistance to critical race theory, a charge led by activist Christopher Rufo and taken up by DeSantis in Florida and other Republican governors. The debate over teaching about race spawned a parallel debate over gender. If the controversies reflected genuine discomfort about how to talk about genuinely contentious issues in the classroom — and at what age it was appropriate to talk about them in the first place— the partisanship playing out on social media and cable news turned what could have been a national conversation into a shouting match.
Rufo’s project to brand all progressive educational content “critical race theory” succeeded to an astonishing degree, powering the introduction of new restrictions in classrooms across the country. A group of Texas educators sought to redefine the enslavement of Africans in the American colonies as “involuntary relocation.” Districts banned “Maus,” the graphic novel about the Holocaust, and the “Harry Potter” series. In Florida, where some of the most restrictive rules went into effect, teachers had to remove flags bearing the edict to “coexist.”
“[Ronald] Reagan would actually be turning in his grave right now about how the Republican Party has now operated with respect to democracy,” Weingarten said. In her view, Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other conservatives are trying to create a “Christian national state,” a project that first requires the destruction of public education.
“It’s a fundamental resistance to the institutions that give voice and agency to everyone,” Weingarten says.
Between saving democracy and shoring up standardized test scores, she has more than enough work for the year ahead, especially now that merely keeping schools open is not seen as the achievement it perhaps was in 2021.
“What’s keeping me up at night is that this needs to be, and we need to do everything in our power to make this, as joyful and as normal a year as possible,” Weingarten told Yahoo News. “Kids need a sense of joy. They need a sense of normalcy.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described First Lady Jill Biden as an AFT member.