THE BLOG
02/07/2011 10:53 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Teachers Union Chief and Mayor Bloomberg Fall Out of Love

It's the end of another beautiful - or at least mutually self-interested - political friendship. The head of the national teachers union has lost the love when it comes to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"I'm very disappointed in the mayor. I don't know why he's gone from wanting to work with people to making teachers his enemy," said Randi Weingarten, the head of the 1.5 million member American Federation of Teachers.

The political atmosphere for teachers and teacher unions is "more toxic than I can ever remember," Weingarten, 53, said in an interview with HuffPost.

New York City might be exhibit A these days. And it's not just the teachers.

Last week crowds turned out to jeer the new chancellor, Cathleen Black, in a furor over school closings. The mayor's oversight panel voted to close 22 schools low-performing schools to jeers of "Black is wack." The mayor called the scene "embarrassing."

Meanwhile, Bloomberg - who sought peaceful relations with the unions when he was running for a third term - has made the high cost of public employee pensions a crusade recently. In particular, he's been arguing that no city worker should be eligible to get a pension until age 65.

That exasperates Weingarten, who was head of the New York City teachers local until 2008, and negotiated a deal with Bloomberg to lower teachers' retirement age from 62 down to 55, in return for increased teacher payments into the retirement fund.

"The mayor thought that this was a really important step forward, because he believed that 25 or 30 years was really the career of a teacher. Now he turns around and says something else," she said.

Weingarten also seems unimpressed Chancellor Black, the former publishing executive who's been under fire since the moment the mayor abruptly announced her appointment.

"I'm sure she was a very good manager at Hearst and all this other stuff, but what's happened to her over the past few months proves that experience really counts in education. You have to actually understand something about schools and schooling," Weingarten said.

Ditto the school closing ritual that sparked Black's latest public hazing.

"Parents want us, the people involved with schools, to turn these schools around, not create an environment in which they fail. If you look at the evidence, if you keep on closing and redesigning schools - sometimes they work but most of the time they don't."

Weingarten is both more flexible and more formidable than she's sometimes given credit for. She's negotiated contracts that make teachers far more accountable for classroom performance than they were in the past, including one with the outspoken Washington DC chancellor Michelle Rhee. But she also threw the union's clout behind an effort to defeat Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, who was Rhee's champion. Fenty was tossed out of office and Rhee resigned shortly after.

"Mayor Fenty lost because he was out of touch with the people who live and vote in Washington, D.C. Michelle Rhee was an example of that," she said.

Because of her clash with Rhee, Weingarten was given the role of anti-reform villain in the celebrated documentary Waiting for "Superman", which touted the success of charter schools. Weingarten did not really fight the establishment of charter schools in New York, but she regards them as overrated experiments that generally don't take the most difficult students and which fail more often than they succeed.

"Let me just throw this out," she said. "I assume that Cathie Black, Michele Rhee - all of them - actually want to educate kids. So work with your teachers to educate kids in these tough times. Listen to teachers. Listen to parents. Let's start there as opposed to From-On-High."

Pressed on the issue of tenure - another of Bloomberg's crusades is to end the seniority system that requires the most junior teachers to be laid off first - Weinberg talks about the importance of "due process." Tenure, she said, should not be seen as "a job for life" but her members deserved assurance that they won't be fired without cause. As an example of what teachers worry about, she pointed to the recent case of a Bronx principal who allegedly made up a "hit list" of teachers she disliked, and then directed her subordinates to come up with reasons to give them unsatisfactory ratings.

There are, in Weingarten's vision, two kinds of leaders in the American school system. "The first style is the one that says: 'I'm the only one who cares about kids and I'm going to try to drive this change through using conflict and division," she said.

"The other style is: Education is a pretty complex venture and we have to work together urgently but thoughtfully to help all kids learn."

Mayor Bloomberg, it appears, has been demoted from group A to group B.