As president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten is one of the most recognized names in American education. The first openly gay woman to preside over a labor union, Weingarten, 60, was raised in Rockland County, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations school and the Cardozo School of Law. She is a life member of Hadassah—a gift from her mother, a teacher who found what she called her “spiritual home” in the organization. Weingarten spoke recently as she traveled by train from Washington, D.C., where she works, to Manhattan, where she lives with her partner, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, of the LGBTQ Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What are the most critical issues facing American education today?
For the first time ever, the most critical issue is whether we will even have a public education system. We’ve never had a secretary of education who has an antipathy to public education. This is an existential threat beyond politics. Public education is the foundation of democracy and the path to opportunity. Let’s fix what’s broken, but don’t just throw out the baby with the bathwater.
What specific reforms do schools need to be successful?
There are four broad strategies: You start with children’s social and emotional well-being; create powerful learning that engages them to want to go to school; teach teachers how to do the work; and create cultures of collaboration between parents, teachers and administration.
You have said that school vouchers don’t just undermine public school education, they undermine democracy. Can you explain?
People have a right to send their children to whatever school they want, but public funds have to go to places that are nondiscriminatory, accountable and transparent. Part of the accountability is that you can’t say the universe started with Bereishit (Genesis) or segregate boys and girls. The First Amendment, which stops government from establishing religion yet grants its free expression, created the lines here. Taxpayer dollars come with a justice component. Some people think of that as a constraint. Others think of it as a path to tolerance and inclusiveness.
What motivated you to share your experience as a gay woman?
The process was pretty scary for me because there was tremendous discrimination. I had decided not to talk about being gay but also not to hide it. But I came out 10 years ago to enable others to do the same and to debunk stereotypes and myths. It’s been mind-spinning to watch the culture change. Being gay made me much fiercer because I remember my own fear that I would be compromised, marginalized, discriminated against, thrown out, unaccepted.
How has your relationship with a rabbi deepened your Jewish life?
I love my second job—being the rebbetzin of the shul. It’s no different
at an LGBTQ synagogue than anywhere else. My job is to be as supportive as I possibly can. One is not necessarily involved with a rabbi unless one has a Jewish life anyway. I’m using those Jewish muscles now in a way I find very meaningful.
Who or what inspired you to champion public education?
I am a third-generation American. My parents, many of their generation and I had opportunities because of public education. We can’t pull the ladder of opportunity up after us. I learned the values of education, justice and repairing the world from my parents, from Camp Ramah in Palmer, Mass., and from my spiritual mentors growing up. As a kid, I read everything I could about the Holocaust. I thought about it all the time. Why this discrimination against Jews? I feel a real responsibility to support the institutions that are the beachhead against tyranny and fascism. I live by the words of Hillel: If not now, when? If not me, who?
Rahel Musleah, a regular contributor to Hadassah Magazine, also runs Jewish tours to India (explorejewishindia.com).