To understand why fewer women choose public education as a career these days, look no further than Randi Weingarten, daughter of a teacher and now head of the United Federation of Teachers.
Weingarten’s memories of her mother Edith’s career conjures up images of unglamorous labor.
“The living room table constantly had papers festooned all over it,” she recalls in an interview at the UFT’s ornate Park Avenue office.
Weingarten chose law as her profession, and her sister became a doctor because “we thought our mother worked too hard.”
While serving as the UFT’s counsel in the 1990s, however, Weingarten had a change of heart about the career she had rejected. She began teaching social studies and American history at Clara Barton High School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
“I thought as a lawyer I could change society and make a real difference,” says Weingarten, 41. “I realized that teachers actually make a whole lot more difference in the lives of people, in the lives of kids, than lawyers could ever possibly do.”
As the chief negotiator for the 140,000-member union, which includes some 100,000 active teachers, Weingarten is on the front lines of the battle for adequate pay and support for the city’s public school teachers. But as a Jewish baby-boomer born into an era of unprecedented opening of the job market for women, she understands firsthand why there is a shortage of qualified teachers in the school system and why Jewish teachers — who once dominated the field — are a diminishing presence in the classrooms.
Since Jewish women come from predominantly middle-class backgrounds, they increasingly have the option of pursuing higher-paying fields requiring post-college education. The starting salary for public school teachers is now $31,900.
“Fewer and fewer people are willing to do missionary work,” says Weingarten. “They can’t raise a family on missionary wages.
“Females have lots and lots of different options that were not available to them a generation ago. [My sister and I] are symptomatic of the bigger picture of there being so many other opportunities, and society doesn’t value its teachers enough to pay them a competitive rate.”
Weingarten assumed the presidency of the UFT this year from its longtime icon, Sandra Feldman — now president of the national American Federation of Teachers — at a time when teachers and principals are bearing the brunt of criticism for the shortcomings of the public schools.
Lost on the critics, she says, is the realization that the shortage of teachers has necessitated the hiring of more than 10,000 teachers who lack state certification or advanced degrees. Those teachers have three years to obtain the credentials, although that requirement is often waived, and they are remaining longer.
Not only do the unqualified teachers have an impact on test scores but they cause qualified teachers to leave, Weingarten says. “One out of every two teachers leave within five years, and over 17,000 of our most experienced teachers are eligible to retire today,” she notes.
Preventing what she calls a “massive brain drain” will be a key element in negotiations over the next UFT contract. Although the current agreement expires in November 2000, Weingarten wants to begin talks as early as possible.
“We’d better do something right now to retain some more experienced teachers,” she says, suggesting that recent salary increases for the city’s highest officials and members of the City Council, as high as 18 percent, will make it difficult for the Giuliani administration to be frugal with the teachers, particularly with a budget surplus.
“The worst thing the people who manage the city could do is feather their own nests, give themselves a huge raise and then say that the people who are actually the muscle and sinew of the city don’t deserve the same,” says Weingarten.
In addition to compensation issues, the UFT is also seeking more city-funded training programs to bring teachers’ skills up to date.
During her short tenure as president, Weingarten has earned high marks for shifting the union’s image from job protector to advocate for quality education.
“The public has always associated the teachers union as preserving the status quo,” says Ester Fuchs, director of the Center for Urban Policy at Columbia University. “[Randi’s] strategy has to do with reducing class size, working with reform groups to get changes in the state Legislature. The more she continues linking quality teachers with quality education, the more successful she will be.”
Weingarten, the granddaughter of immigrants from Russia and Austria, and the daughter of a teacher and an engineer, grew up in New City in Rockland County. She attended public schools and led an observant Conservative lifestyle during her Hebrew school years.
“I was very religious, more than my parents,” she said. “I observed kashrut and the Sabbath. But I don’t view myself as an observant Jew anymore, although I still belong to a synagogue.” Weingarten declined to name the synagogue.
She says in the 1970s and ’80s she was among those who believed that women should have the same kind of roles in Judaism as men. “I was at the beginning of the curve, and I got a little ahead of my time.”
After earning her degree in international and labor relations from Cornell University and her law degree from the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law, Weingarten handled labor cases at the Manhattan firm of Stroock, Stroock and Lavan before signing on at UFT. She now lives in Brooklyn.
No statistics are available on the number of Jewish teachers currently in the system, once estimated to be as high as 56 percent, but anecdotal evidence recently observed in a New York magazine piece by Sam Freedman suggests their once-dominating presence has been drastically reduced.
Weingarten insists there is still ample Jewish representation in the ranks. “Often when I go into a school I will talk about my grandmother or use some Yiddishkeit so people will relate to me in a different kind of way,” she says.
“There are some people who believe there is less of a presence, and they are probably right. But I’m very proud of the diverse balance we’ve been able to forge.”