Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the most influential teachers’ unions in the country. She attended the Historic Thousands on Jones Street rally on Saturday. She spoke with View from the Hill about the march and about education in North Carolina.
View from the Hill: Why did you decide to go to HKonJ and what were the main things you heard from teachers?
Randi Weingarten: I would follow Rev. Barber anywhere. I think that what the Moral Mondays are doing is actually trying to shine a spotlight on extremism and doing it through a values agenda. And you saw that clearly as possible because of the religious leaders who are leading not only the march on Saturday but the Moral Mondays that had gone through North Carolina for the last several months.
VFTH: There were a lot of teachers who were there to express frustration. North Carolina is a right-to-work state so they don’t necessarily have collective bargaining. What are some ways that the AFT is working with teachers in North Carolina when they don’t have the same bargaining power that teachers in other states would have?
RW: So we are not a dominant union in North Carolina. In fact our union membership is quite small in North Carolina but North Carolina symbolizes the fight against extremism throughout the country and that’s what the march on Saturday was about. It’s a fight against extremism. It’s a fight for creating a ladder of opportunity and a fight for humanity that’s against the extremist element that’s now in the legislature and Pat McCrory.
They are more interested in helping the millionaires in North Carolina enrich themselves than in helping the people of North Carolina. And that has actually not been the recent tradition of North Carolina. What you’re seeing is the people of North Carolina facing extremist attacks fueled by a political agenda that favors special interest and those in power are not listening to the people who actually make up the population of North Carolina.
So what’s happening is the North Carolina legislature found a way to demonize the educators, stripping all of their rights, including their economic rights. And then in what was a very sad and ironic moment was two or three days after the march was this feigned attempt to seek higher teacher pay in North Carolina and when I say feigned attempt is when you actually look at the details of the Governor’s proposal, it’s clear that when the state is 47th in terms of teacher salary (note: the state is actually ranked 46th), that the simple thing that the Governor wanted to do was find a way to increase starting salaries so that they could get bodies into a classroom at a period of time when there’s a big neon light saying “don’t bother coming to North Carolina, we are not respected as school teachers.”
Talking to teachers, I think teachers are stunned in North Carolina because what they’ve seen is an all-out assault and a war on teachers. It used to be a state where education was a bipartisan issue. One of the former governors is actually someone who started the national board for national professional standards. Someone who’s been out there for standards. Gov. (Jim) Hunt is someone who everyone respects. To see what’s happened to what was a modern Southern state that was in the forefront of the tech world and the forefront of research then take a step back from the ladder of opportunity to use the anger that people have about what’s happened to their lives and use it to divide rich versus everyone else is a sad sad state.
And that’s why you saw thousands of thousands of people—more than have ever been since the Civil Rights marches in a demonstration—focus on how to make a more just society and it was about funding and valuing public schools. It’s about having a living wage. It’s having voting rights, a fair judicial system and making sure we have a path to education not a path to prison.
VFTH: It’s interesting you mentioned the teacher’s announcement. The plan would affect teachers that have taught less than 10 years and would increase salary by 14 percent. Is that what you were talking about when you were saying this is going to divide teachers?
RW: What I’m saying is that there’s a proposal that the governor made in the last couple of days that essentially was about increasing minimum salaries. Now increasing minimum salaries are really important. It’s important to have a salary that befits teaching so that people want to come into our profession. But you can’t just increase minimum salaries and turn your back on the hard-working teachers in North Carolina who have not had a pay increase for years and in fact, had the state legislature strip away what has become their cost of living increases or their increases based upon a year of experience.
VFTH: One thing I noticed that a lot of people were protesting was to oppose this decline to sign a movement that would oppose trading tenure and the top 25 percent of teachers would receive a raise. How likely is it that teachers opposed to it will be to resist the action?
RW: I get it. We represent educators in Chapel Hill and a couple of other places in the state and I know that the NEA affiliate has been very much involved in the “decline to sign” movement but what you are seeing is teachers saying that this is not fair and this is not fundamentally right. And what we’ve also seen frankly is that there is no evidence that this so called merit pay actually really helps students. Every study about paying a couple people more than everyone else shows that it’s divisive and doesn’t work and to mold kids.
Teaching is a collective profession. We work with each other. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be evaluated appropriately and if we can’t teach we should be in the profession. We shouldn’t be. But we have to be a sharing profession and there’s room for differentials and incentives that are aligned with what we know systemically works to help improve instruction and how kids learn. But this notion of paying people more based upon test scores is not one of things and in fact there’s lots and lots of research now that shows that not only doesn’t it work but also there’s a lot of counterproductive effects.
VFTH: A lot of people from other states were there to try to learn. What ways do you think Moral Monday’s spirit or the HKonJ’s strategies be played in other states that have seen similar things in the South or elsewhere like in Wisconsin?
RW: So a lot of the work that extremists do is to come in really quickly and to just strip away rights to try to demoralize and oppress people and hope that people just feel defeated. So it’s a demoralization strategy to hope that people feel defeated.
And what you see in terms of the Moral Mondays is that it just debunks that strategy that basically has taken this vilification of teachers and has actually motivated and inspired them to step forward and to find the energy and the strength to fight back.
And that’s what the Moral Monday movement is about. It’s less about fighting about specific issues and more about a reaction to extremism and divisiveness and the polarization that frankly, it’s not this extremism that you’d see in places like North Carolina or Tennessee, where in reaction to the economic austerities actually attack the most vulnerable and strip away rights of people who can protest, this is not American. It’s not an American value. American value is about all of us gaining more and more rights and about the diversity and about the melting pot and the ladder of opportunity where we all work and share with each other to make a better world.
And what the Moral Mondays movement is about is a call to action that says that’s not right. It’s not ethical. It’s not equitable and it’s not our value system either in North Carolina or in the nation. And it also defies those who are trying to strip rights by people standing up and saying you cannot take away our dignity.
I just got a tweet today saying about how there will be Moral Mondays in Arizona. That there’ll be Moral Mondays in Arkansas.
But those of us who came from out of town and the national leaders, we were not the leaders of this but we were witnesses to a movement that is very indigenous to North Carolina and hopefully will be indigenous to other states. It is a local movement and state-based movement that turns the country around.
VFTH: What would be some ways or alternative to what McCrory proposed in response to teacher pay?
RW: As someone who’s not in North Carolina, it’s not for me to propose what a suitable alternative would be. Let me just say, cutting money for teacher assistance and money for supplies, stripping teachers of tenure, eliminating class size limits when you are already 46th in the nation and defunding public education at the same time you’re creating a voucher program, none of those things are the ways to create a highway for the middle class or help prepare kids for life, college and career. They’re all moving in the opposite direction.
So the first thing the governor can do is actually sit and talk to the teachers in his state. If you want to actually respect teachers, the first thing you do is you actually talk to them and engage with them and listen to them, rather than strip them of their rights and then come up with a proposal where you mouth rhetorical words about respect and dignity but you do just the opposite.
VFTH: What was your general feeling after the march was over?
RW: I was really honored to be there and I was really inspired. These are people, workers throughout the state, religious leaders, congregants, educators, people who fought battles before about voting rights, women’s rights, gay rights. This is a movement of regular folks doing extraordinary things. That’s what turns a moment into a movement. People banding together, listening and answering a call to act but banding together to make a more just society.
That’s what I saw on the streets of Raleigh that day under the dome of the Capitol.
I saw in the Moral March a real sense of a value system about helping people. People who want to help themselves get to a better way and need that ladder and highway to opportunity. That’s what I thought. It was very, very inspiring.
View from the Hill is a political blog by Daily Tar Heel staff writers. Any opinion expressed in it does not represent the Daily Tar Heel. Email the blog coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.