Pompeo vs. Weingarten:
The Way Forward

We live in an age where hyperbole thrives. “Trump is a Nazi!” and “The January 6 attack on the Capitol was an insurrection!” are but two of the myriad over-the-top accusations that permeate our media and culture these days. Now, we can add a new bit of shrill distortion to the list. On November 21, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to Randi Weingarten, longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers, as “the most dangerous person in the world.”

“I tell the story often—I get asked ‘Who’s the most dangerous person in the world? Is it Chairman Kim, is it Xi Jinping?’” Pompeo said in an interview with Semafor. “The most dangerous person in the world is Randi Weingarten. It’s not a close call. If you ask, ‘Who’s the most likely to take this republic down?’ It would be the teacher’s unions, and the filth that they’re teaching our kids, and the fact that they don’t know math and reading or writing.”

While there is a kernel truth in Pompeo’s hype, Weingarten is far from the “most dangerous.” First, the great majority of teachers’ union evil is done on the state and local level, and does not involve the national organization at all. Additionally, Weingarten has her job because teachers—whether because they agree with her positions or because of apathy or fear of speaking out—elect to keep her around. Also worth noting is that the AFT does not wield as much power as the other national teachers union, the National Education Association.

After the story received some media play, Pompeo wrote an op-ed for the New York Post on November 29 in which he did something more sensible: he challenged Weingarten to a debate.

Three days later Weingarten declined the offer, and instead made a counterproposal. “If he wants to engage in a real discussion about how best to strengthen public education or the importance of treating educators with respect, I invite him to join me in a visit to one of America’s 100,000 public schools to learn a thing or two.”

If I had Pompeo’s ear, I would give him the following advice: Apologize for the hyperbolic comment and take Weingarten up on her offer to visit a school—on the condition that she would then debate you.

But after the apology, if she refuses to debate Pompeo or anyone else, it may be because of an unpleasant experience she had some years back.

As one who had regularly butted heads with teacher unions at the time, I was pleasantly surprised to get a call in 2010 inviting me to come to New York City to participate in a debate on March 16. Intelligence Squared hosts monthly Oxford-style debates on a wide range of topics, and this one was clumsily named, “Do Not Blame the Teachers Unions for Our Failing Schools.” In other words, if you think the unions are to blame, you would would vote against the motion.

Each of the 500 or so attendees got to enter their pre-debate opinion electronically before the debate and then voted again once it was over. The winner was determined by the team that got the most people to change their vote.

Our team consisted of Rod Paige, former U.S. Secretary of Education, Terry Moe, professor of political science at Stanford University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and me, a recently retired middle school teacher.

On the opposing side, there was Kate McLaughlin, a teacher from Massachusetts, Gary Smuts, a superintendent of a school district in southern California, and Randi Weingarten.

Kate and Gary seemed like nice folks who shared a few stories and were very earnest. They sounded silly a couple of times, but nothing they said was too egregious. And then there was Weingarten. It boggles the mind that the best this union leader could do was trot out shibboleths followed by half-truths, which preceded rambling non sequiturs.

All we had to do was remind the other team of the facts. We used logic, data, and dramatic real-world examples, all the while focusing on the big picture. While I was anticipating some brilliant points or arcane facts that our team wouldn’t be able to handle, the debate never came close to that scenario.

The results were definitive, to say the least. Despite our fears of an audience packed with unionistas, the pro-union side got clobbered. About 95 percent of the people who changed their votes came over to the anti-union side.

I saw up close and personal what I have always felt—that the teacher unions are running on empty. The emperor is naked as a jaybird. Not only don’t they have anything to offer in the way of true education reform, they are the greatest impediment we have to any meaningful change. All the lofty words from teacher union presidents over the years about higher quality schools, teacher accountability, putting the interests of students first, etc. are nothing but empty rhetoric meant to lead the public to believe that children are their highest priority.

The debate can be seen in its entirety here.

Should Weingarten agree to debate Pompeo, there is a load of bilge that Weingarten has continued to pump out over the years that he can use as ammo. Here is a very small sampling of potential talking points dating back to 2014:

In 2014, Weingarten went after the bogeymen of the time: the Koch Brothers, insisting that their “dark money” turned the brothers into ogres at the expense of the li’l old teachers unions. In fact, according to Open Secrets, between 1989-2014 the “Koch Brothers Rank 59 in Political Donations Behind 18 Different Unions.” NEA was number four at $53 million and her American Federation of Teachers was 12th at $36 million, while the Kochs were way down the list in 59th place, having spent a measly $18 million during that time period.

In 2017, Weingarten claimed, “School vouchers don’t just undermine public schools, they undermine our democracy.” Does she actually think that letting families—typically poor and minority—escape their failing, ZIP code-mandated, public schools, imperils our democracy? In fact, letting people make their own choices is highly democratic.

On the same subject in 2017, she preached, “Make no mistake: This use of privatization, coupled with disinvestment are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.” While she despises any public money going to a parent who wants to send a child to a private school, she praises Pell Grants. These federal dollars go to needy college students, and can be used to attend private colleges, including religious schools like Notre Dame and Brigham Young. But on the K-12 level, giving parents choices—vouchers, ESAs, etc., especially if used at a religious school—is her worst nightmare. Why is that?

In 2018, outside the U.S. Supreme Court building during oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, Weingarten managed to spit out a brief rant to a newsman in which she bizarrely asserted that unions “actually make communities safer and . . . the right-wing is threatened by that.” Really, Randi?!

In 2020, at antisemite and tax cheat Al Sharpton’s National Day of Action lefty-fest in Washington, D.C., she informed the throng that teachers are so frightened of going back to work that they’re “writing their wills.” Yet she delivered her rant mask-free and did not practice social distancing, spitting potential corona-cooties at the masses while doing so. The above happened before her union lobbied the CDC on—and even proposed language for—the agency’s school-reopening guidance released in February 2021. Quite obviously the lobbying paid off since, in at least two instances, language suggestions offered by the union were adopted nearly verbatim in the final text of the CDC document. Kelly Trautner, AFT senior director for health issues, went so far as to describe the union as the CDC’s “thought partner” in an email.

In 2021, Weingarten told the Jewish Telegraph Agency that “American Jews are now part of the ownership class” and “that those who are in the ownership class now want to take that ladder of opportunity away from those who do not have it.” This is especially rich, as she accused Pompeo of being an antisemite when, in fact, he is a staunch Zionist.

Also in 2021, after repeatedly denying the existence of critical race theory in schools, she invited Ibram X. Kendi, probably the most vocal and aggressive CRT proponent in the country, to speak at an AFT conference. His talk was touted as an opportunity to “Hear from Dr. Ibram X. Kendi in this free-ranging discussion with student activists and AFT members on his scholarship and on developing anti-racist mindsets and actions inside and outside classrooms.” (There seems to be no end to this woman’s hypocrisy.)

Earlier this year, Weingarten said something really creepy. After Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law Florida’s House Bill (HB) 1557, which disallows or limits schools from instructing children in certain sexual matters, she just went ballistic, claiming, “We have to let gay kids and gay teachers—frankly we have to let everyone talk about their lived experience.” Until recently, it was a teacher’s job to teach reading, writing and arithmetic. Why does Weingarten feel it’s necessary to introduce X-rated subjects to children as young as 3-years-old?

Then Weingarten jumped the proverbial shark. Referring to the Florida law on a podcast, she blurted out, “This is propaganda. This is misinformation. This is the way in which wars start.” Are we supposed to take this woman seriously?

Also in March, in her never-ending quest to shutter schools, she stated that masking should be required until there is “zero transmission in schools.” (Which is tantamount to saying that children should not be allowed to ride in cars till there are “zero deaths” of children due to auto accidents. Additionally, cloth masks have been shown to be little more than facial decorations.)

Randi Weingarten pulls in a $534,000 yearly salary and has begun her eighth term as elected AFT president. As such, teachers who don’t want to support her should register their displeasure by quitting her union. While she is not the most dangerous person in the world, she is deeply flawed, to say the least. If Pompeo pelts her with facts—after an apology and a visit to a school—she will be outed as the two-faced, inarticulate, attention-seeking hypocrite that she is.

Editor’s Note:  A version of this article first appeared at For Kids & Country.

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About Larry Sand

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network—a nonpartisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images