12/18/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"Reinvest, Don't Disinvest" in Education: Randi Weingarten Takes the National Stage

Randi Weingarten took the stage at the National Press Club on Monday to give her first major speech since becoming president of the American Federation of Teachers. The packed room featured a who's who of players in the national education scene, including NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and Rep. George Miller, chairman of the rebooted No Child Left Behind incubator, the House Education and Labor Committee. Michael Bloomberg swooped in from New York to introduce Weingarten to the D.C. crowd.

Weingarten's speech was an impassioned call to spare the hatchet--or scalpel-- in federal funding for education. Facing an economic crisis, states and local school districts are slashing budgets across the board, and education is feeling the pain. Weingarten emphatically cautioned the federal government from following suit. She said, "I propose that the nation reinvest--not disinvest--in education. By reinvesting, I don't just mean money... we also must commit to policies and programs that challenge our schools, demand that they do the very best for all children, and ensure that the people who teach our students are given the tools they need." She insisted that investing in education now is the best way to ensure economic success for our country's future.

Randi raised eyebrows when hammering home her assertion that AFT is ready for negotiations with the federal government and will seek common ground on educational issues across the board, even those traditionally not supported by the union. She said, "With the exception of vouchers, which siphon scarce resources from our public schools, NO ISSUE should be off the table, provided it is good for children and fair for teachers."

She called for "smart investment" in education, without waiting for the reauthorization of NCLB. The AFT's 10-point Smart Investments in Education proposal calls for:

1. Providing universal early childhood education, starting with low-income children.
2. Preparing young people for high-skill, high-demand "green jobs."
3. Providing a boost to high-achieving students from low-income households.
4. Offering high-quality educational choices within the public school system.
5. Focusing intensely on improving low-performing schools.
6. Establishing community schools that serve the neediest children by bringing together services that they and their families need.
7. Ensuring that every school facility is a place where teachers can teach and students can learn.
8. Expanding teacher induction so that new teachers are not left to sink or swim.
9. Creating an online teacher resource network with information on curriculum, lesson plans and source documents to enhance teaching.
10. Offering every student a well-rounded education that would stand in stark contrast to the "standardized test score competition" that has resulted from NCLB.

Those forward-looking goals sound right to this educator.

Weingarten and Bloomberg also touted a new initiative in New York City that is paying teachers and principals in high-need schools for improved results on standardized test scores and on the city's controversial school report card grades. Earlier this year, the city gave bonuses totaling $14.2 million to 89 elementary and middle schools. Weingarten said at the press conference today that 189 of the 200 schools in the program opted to stay in the program during the next cycle. With the teachers' unions buying in, it appears the performance pay train--at least in modified forms--is on the fast track.

Randi Weingarten has worked tirelessly in New York City to improve schools to benefit students, families, and teachers, and her opening salvo as president of the AFT indicate that she will continue the fight on the national level.

Additional reporting by Colleen Brown.