Q&A with Randi Weingarten: Is Australia’s Conservative Government Doing More About School Equity Than the Obama Administration?

President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten has traveled the globe, to places like Argentina, Finland and Singapore, to bring lessons back from foreign education systems to the United States. She spent three days in Australia in April, visiting schools and talking to union officials from across the country.

Australia, like the United States, is a diverse country with a significant percentage of students living in poverty. Both countries perform below the world’s best on international assessments and are trying similar things, like expanding school choice and adopting new standards, to improve their position.

In February, I took my own trip down under to learn about Australia’s policies for tackling truancy and elevating the teaching profession. A conservative government had assumed control about five months prior, and educators talked to me about their concerns that the “Gonski Report,” a 2011 report that recommended ways to improve education funding and address inequities, would no longer be honored. It disappeared from all government websites in late 2013, but resurfaced in January.

Teachers are still concerned, Weingarten said, when we talked to compare notes. Here are some of her other impressions from the trip:

Question: What were some of your initial reactions from your time in Australia?

Answer: The thing that was great was going to the schools. The elementary school where dozens of languages were spoken at home. There was a school near a detention center. We saw a performance by the students in an intensive English program and we’re still singing the song ‘I’m proud to be a refugee.’ The second chance school that we saw. One of the students said that the teachers there saved her life. We met a couple of students who had suffered breakdowns or severe anxiety brought on by the stress of national standardized tests.

What I was really, really struck by was the potential of Gonski. You had business support, you had the government support, where they talked about over $15 billion in new funds. There was a majority of members associated with Catholic education unanimously agreed that school funding had to be overhauled. There’s a huge, huge, huge set of resources for public schools and schools serving large numbers of disadvantaged students. Where you see that there was this huge push by [the] union to lead that charge and help to support the Gonski report. It was not just [the] union you had all these business groups supporting it. Because you can’t say education is important without actually supporting it.

Q: Do you think there is anything they’re doing that the United States could learn from?

Randi Weingarten

Randi Weingarten

A: Under [United States Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan’s auspices, there was a big equity committee and it met for months. The federal government did nothing and Arne Duncan did nothing to really push that to the arena. What’s interesting is the new government in Australia doesn’t believe in it either, but they’re supposedly a conservative government, not a liberal government. In fact, people believed in it so much, that [Australian Prime Minister Tony] Abott and[Minster of Education Christopher] Pyne, days before they were elected said, ‘Oh no no no. There’s not an issue with Gonski. We’re going to adopt.”

The point I’m making is really you had business people on that commission, you had labor people, you had a real convergence that public education was important. I think that that’s something that our folks can learn about. This whole notion of equity – you heard it in the presidential election. I saw President Obama’s commercials about class size. I saw them talk about resources for schools. But when you get to the issue about how to do this – I have not seen Arne Duncan invest any capital whatsoever in that commission report versus how the last [Australian] labor government, not only created the commission report, but there was lots and lots and lots of investment in making it work.

Q: One of the things Australia is known for in international circles is the professionalization of the teaching job. Did you talk about that with union leaders?

A: You saw it. They are worried that this government will take on the attributes of the de-professionalizers. But even take something like Teach for Australia. It never caught on because people really believe that teaching is a profession. It’s an art. It’s a science, like medicine, like law. There’s a real induction process. They sound like our union sounds about standards and a commitment to standards and a commitment to equity and it was really nice to hear.

You’ve got a conservative government now in Australia. And it’s not as if things are peaches and cream in Australia. There have been a lot of fights going on. It’s not as if it’s going to be smooth sailing there. But there’s a big difference – and I’ve seen it in other places as well – even with conservative governments or less liberal governments, there’s a deep respect for teaching and teachers. So for example, Ken Boston, who was on the Gonski committee, said, you hear people even in Australia just like [when] they talk about the health care system, they don’t talk about bad doctors. They talk about the teaching system. They don’t talk about bad teachers. They understand more deeply that these are systemic approaches. There’s much more of a deep respect for the profession of teaching and for teachers as professionals. You saw it in the schools that we went to. Even with the budget cuts, even with the other issues, even with the fight about Gonski, you just saw it. It’s just different. There is this level of vitriol in the United States that these folks, they don’t see it. They don’t get it. They’re like, ‘What is going on in your country?’

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

[Cross-posted at Hechinger Report]

Sarah Butrymowicz

Sarah Butrymowicz received a bachelor's degree from Tufts University and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.