CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It is a soul-searching moment for the teachers' unions.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second-largest educators' union in the country, met Wednesday for about an hour with a group of more than a dozen progressive activists and bloggers. Before the meeting kicked off, she sat in a folding chair against a wall in a windowless office, chatting with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Weingarten told Dean that the teachers' unions face "an existential threat."
She then turned to talk with the activists and bloggers. Their discussion was marked by a sense of concern that, as Daily Kos blogger Dante Atkins put it, teachers' unions are becoming known as "the recalcitrant ones."
"What's the strategy almost for image rehabilitation?" Atkins asked.
Weingarten did not explicitly reject the premise of the question -- that the unions' biggest problem is that they've been out-messaged. She paused for a moment and responded, "I'm not an image maker. I'm kind of a doer."
But throughout the hour, Weingarten did make a number of comments accepting blame for missteps. "I know we've done things wrong both as a union movement as well as a teachers' union," she said in her opening remarks, before she even started taking questions.
She acknowledged that this kind of talk makes some of her union's 1.5 million members uneasy.
"I know sometimes my members get really upset at me when I say this, but you have to look at yourselves and say, 'How can you change? How can you do things better?'" Weingarten said. "And what we've done as a movement, we focused, we fixated on fairness. We thought, like, when they talk about justice and teacher unions, we would say, 'That's the boss's job to fire somebody. That's not our job.'"
The apologetic tone was not an emotional, spur-of-the-moment outburst, even if Weingarten is given to raising her voice and slapping her hand on her leg to emphasize a point. She appeared to recognize that if teachers' unions are going to weather another round of criticism, brought on by a new Hollywood film, "Won't Back Down," in which the union is the bad guy, they will have to adopt a strategy that starts with conciliation.
"Won't Back Down" makes the same argument as the 2010 documentary "Waiting for Superman," but dramatizes it in an emotionally compelling fictional story, based in many parts on a fight between parents in Los Angeles and their local school district. Big-screen stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis play parents who take over the school by rallying other parents and the school's teachers behind them, all in the face of bullying opposition from the teachers' union.
Although teachers' unions are one of the Democratic Party's largest and most loyal financial contributors, a number of high-profile Democratic mayors have already openly defied them, and President Barack Obama adopted the 2009 Race to the Top reforms in the face of unions' vehement opposition. Policy changes such as ending or weakening tenure for teachers, introducing merit pay, and expanding school choice through charter schools or vouchers have gained greater acceptance beyond the Republican Party, which has been pushing for these reforms for years.
Weingarten can tell which way the political winds are blowing. She made a number of admissions throughout the meeting.
On teacher evaluations over the years: "Most of us basically had what I would call a drive-by evaluation, you know, 20 minutes in a classroom, boom, that's it. That's not an evaluation."
On being solutions-oriented: "We have to be solution-driven. I'll talk about myself. We often talk about why something else won't work, without actually saying this will work."
And she said the ATF had relied too much on headquarter dictates and was renewing efforts at the local level and digging in to do the hard, necessary work of building relationships, influence and political capital.
"We've taken a page from Governor Dean's book about doing this work on the ground, in communities, as opposed to doing this work on high from Washington," she said.
Dean himself praised charter schools and pointed out that the AFT operates one in New York.
"I actually want to defend charter schools," he said. "There are a lot of problems with charter schools, which is why you ought to never be allowed to have a charter school that can cherry-pick [students]. You ought to do it by lottery."
But citing a statistic that 17 percent of charter school students do much better than they would at their local public schools, Dean continued, "[T]here is innovation in charter schools, and we ought to look at the innovation that happens. Innovation is absolutely essential. I don't think there's anybody who's going to argue that innovation is not essential."
Dean also added some of his own mea culpas, but was careful to pair them with explanations or quick counterattacks.
"Are there crappy teachers? Yes, and the reason there are is because administrators didn't do their job five years ago when they should have been either improved or told, 'OK, it's time to go find something else,'" Dean said. "I have not heard the American Federation of Teachers saying, 'We want to keep crappy people in our system.' What I have heard them saying is, if you're gonna treat teachers fairly, then you have to evaluate them and tell them early on to go find something else to do, and you can't do it based on bias or personal dislike or personal animosity."
That may be true, but this year has brought horrific stories of teachers like Mark Berndt, the 61-year-old Los Angeles elementary school teacher who allegedly molested students and then was paid $40,000 to resign and did so with lifetime pension and health benefits of about $3,900 a month. The school district settled with Berndt because officials calculated that it would cost less and be easier than going through the expensive and time-consuming process required to fire a teacher.
Berndt was arrested in January and charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct.
It's examples like Berndt that tend to undermine Weingarten's criticism of "Won't Back Down" for inaccurately portraying a neglectful and cruel teacher who remains employed. The movie opens later this month in theaters nationwide.
Weingarten asserted that the AFT has learned from its mistakes and has started correcting them.
"So where we've changed is, yes, fairness is really important," she said, "but also using our voice to make sure kids get a great education and being on the front lines as a union, not just as individual teachers, in making sure that quality is as high as it can be."
Though they were willing to talk about their errors, Weingarten and Dean didn't leave it there. Dean argued that the union's willingness to own up to its shortcomings should be replicated by its opponents in the school reform debate.
"There's a lot of mistakes that have been made along the line. I appreciate Randi owning up to hers. Now I'd like to see some other people own up to their mistakes," Dean said, although he did not name names.
When Digby's Hullabaloo blogger David Atkins asked him about Democrats who have criticized the teachers' unions -- Atkins specifically mentioned former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who did not have a role at the convention, and another person in the room mentioned Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the Democratic convention chairman -- Dean dismissed these critics.
"There will be a lot of people who have never spent any time in classrooms who get up and say things, and you can't stop that. But the core is to organize in communities," Dean said.
Dean, a 2004 presidential candidate and former Democratic National Committee chairman, did warn that if Democrats and liberals continued to shoot at each other, they would remain vulnerable to Republican efforts to divide them.
"We have to get smarter as progressives and Democrats about talking to each other before these things blow up. We can't pretend there are no problems, because as guilty as the Republicans are for being anti-union, sometimes we're so scared of the unions that we don't want to sit down and talk and have the conversations that need to happen," Dean said.
"This is a union leader who is as tough as nails and will have those conversations," added Dean, turning to Weingarten. "That's why I like her."
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Atkins specifically mentioned Villaraigosa as a Democrat who'd criticized a teachers union. It has been updated to reflect it was not Atkins, but another attendee who mentioned Villaraigosa.