Who Is Providence Students’ Weingarten?

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Yesterday, Boston Globe reporter Dan McGowan gave readers one of those glimpses into the way things work that Rhode Island’s size helps facilitate. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (one of the two powerful teacher unions in the United States), was at an event in Rhode Island and mentioned a text message exchange she’d had with RI Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green. So, McGowan found the commissioner elsewhere in the state and managed to get a look at the messages.

Read the full article, but here’s a key passage:

In their text message conversation, commissioner Infante-Green told Weingarten, the national union head, that she has tried to avoid a public confrontation with the city’s teachers. She said she has been “killed in the media for not saying anything against the union.”

“I am concerned by the information that is being given to you,” Infante-Green said. “I am a person of my word. I have gone above and beyond to be silent and not be divisive.”

But Weingarten accused Infante-Green of taking “swipes” at the union and not including teachers in the planning process for the state’s turnaround plan for Providence schools.

“I don’t know how to be clearer,” Weingarten wrote. “You have lost whatever goodwill Evelyn and I created.”

Another key point is Weingarten’s assertion that Infante-Green would “lose a showdown over collective bargaining because most Providence residents support the educators” (McGowan’s paraphrase).

These messages confirm what I’ve been saying since summer — which is something that anybody should agree who’s watched education in Rhode Island and the tepid, short-lived attempts at reform. The problems in Providence and across the state do not get fixed without a major blow to the power and influence of the teacher unions, and that doesn’t happen without a commissioner (with the support of the governor) who is willing to recognize the struggle for what it is and make the case to parents, taxpayers, and voters.

“Working collaboratively” with the union can go no farther than the boundaries of their power. I’ve referred to this as “fix the system” reform, which only permits changes that make the machine of public education run a little more smoothly. The unfortunate reality, however, is that intrinsic parts of the machine (the system) are the problem, most especially the labor unions.

It’s taken about a half a year of wasted time to get there, but hopefully Infante-Green’s sharing of the text messages indicates that the commissioner (at least) is going to stand up for the students, who don’t have a nationally powerful advocate like Weingarten advocating for their unique interests. That ought to be their parents and all of us — including teachers, who ought to reject this sort of representation — but it too seldom is.

Featured image: A union activist protesting the East Greenwich town council.