Pompeo vs. Weingarten: The Way Forward

10 December 2022
Larry Sand
How Mike Pompeo might get the American Federation of Teachers president to debate him.


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. Open to Debate formerly known as Intelligence Squared U.S. 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 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 unionists, 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, but 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.