Are We Seeing a “Reset” in K-12 Philanthropy? Just Maybe, Says AFT’s Randi Weingarten

The past decade has seen fierce battles between teachers unions and leading education funders. Lately, though, there are signs that this polarization may be giving way to a more constructive era.

At Inside Philanthropy, we’ve mused about a “ceasefire in the ed wars.” Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, describes what’s happening as a possible “reset” in K-12 philanthropy.

Weingarten, who leads a union with 1.6 million members, has long been a familiar and outspoken figure in education debates. She’s often used scorching language to describe certain ed funders like the Broad and Walton foundations—and still does, saying they are out to “decimate” public education. Yet Weingarten also sees an important role for philanthropy in improving schools and has worked closely with a number of foundations over the years, most notably Gates, which funded AFT projects to the tune of millions of dollars until 2014.

“Do you mind if I’m really blunt with you?” Weingarten asked, when I called to get her take on the state of K-12 philanthropy. I smiled because, in fact, it’s hard to imagine Randi Weingarten being anything other than blunt. Her hard-hitting style has made her a reviled figure among some ed reformers, who view her as embodying an obstructionist, self-interested unionism—and a hero in other quarters, including among many teachers who see their profession as under attack by a plutocratic cabal.

In other words, Weingarten herself has a been key figure in the recent polarized period. Which is why it’s notable that she’s hopeful that this era may now give way to something else. Specifically, Weingarten sees more funders looking to find collaborative ways to improve education that engage teachers, parents, and communities—after a long period that focused on top-down strategies that pushed school choice and test-based accountability, leading to epic clashes between unions and ed reformers.

Weingarten says she’s had “three life cycles with philanthropy” since becoming a top union leader, first as president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York starting in 1998 and then as head of AFT since 2009.

During her early years at UFT, Weingarten worked closely with foundations on different education efforts. “There was lots of engagement.” But such collaboration became much rarer after new reform funders like Walton and Broad emerged on the scene, as well as various hedge fund philanthropists, and teachers unions were cast as “devil incarnate.” In Weingarten’s view, the ed reform crew “tried to strip teachers of any agency, of any voice, of any seat at the table.”

Yet even through the worst of a period marked by the rise of Michelle Rhee and Waiting for Superman, the AFT still had a relationship with the Gates Foundation, which gave the foundation over $10 million in grants for work on teacher development, before the union stopped taking such funding in 2014, because of distrust among its members toward the foundation.

Today, Weingarten sees a third cycle in AFT’s relationship with philanthropy emerging, pointing to some “real conversations about how to actually get the voices of teachers involved. And I welcome it. Even if you disagree on certain things, if you believe in children, you’ll find a lot of common ground.”

Weingarten and I talked about the direction that Mark Zuckerberg and Laurene Powell Jobs are taking in their philanthropy, with both billionaires embracing a less polarized approach to improving schools. (Zuckerberg’s defection from the hardline reform cabal after Newark has been particularly notable.)

Related: Can a New Focus on Learning by Funders Move K-12 Past the Ed Wars?

Weingarten is especially hopeful about what’s happening at the Gates Foundation, which she sees as shifting away from a top-down managerial approach. The foundation came to see that “what they did didn’t work and it created huge polarization,” she says.

Last year, in an interview with Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, Bill Gates himself expressed disappointment with the impact of his foundation’s huge investments in K-12. “There’s no dramatic change,” he said.

Weingarten cites the recent appointment of Bob Hughes as the head of K-12 at the Gates Foundation as a major sign that a new day may be dawning there. As Inside Philanthropy recently described, Hughes is known for his collaborative style and ability to bring together lots of different stakeholders in efforts to improve education.

Related: A Few Things to Know About the New K-12 Education Chief at Gates

Hughes is coming to Gates from his long-time post as head of New Visions for Public Schools in New York City, where Weingarten got to know him well as head of UFT. “Bob Hughes and I worked together for years and years and years on New Visions.” Weingarten says that Hughes has always had real respect for the “voices of teachers,” and she see his selection by Gates as “an acknowledgement that you have to work with people constructively to change schools...They have picked someone who understands the change process.”

Hughes takes his position at Gates on June 1, so we’ll have to wait and see how much change is really coming to the foundation’s K-12 funding.

While Weingarten’s analysis of what’s happening at Gates, and in ed philanthropy broadly, tracks with what we’re seeing in our reporting at IP, there’s a strong “told-you-so” theme in her comments that perhaps will turn out to be premature.

Certainly there’s been no about-face at Walton and Broad, which are both doubling down on charter schools. As we’ve reported, Walton recently pledged to spend $1 billion over the next five years to expand charters, while Broad is leading an ambitious, half billion dollar effort in Los Angeles to move 50 percent of that city’s kids into charters.

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Weingarten remains as critical as ever of these funders. “Broad and Walton are still fighting the fight,” she says. “And their strategy is to destabilize and decimate public schools.” More specifically, Weingarten says that because these reform funders “lost this push to regulate teachers and schools by test schools,” they are now pushing a strategy to “supplant public schools with charters.”

Strong words, as usual, from the AFT’s Randi Weingarten. Clearly, the ed wars aren't over quite yet.