Randi Weingarten likes to brag a little about the reading and math test scores posted this year at two New York City charter schools she oversees. "These scores were well above the neighboring scores in the community," she says, "and have gotten significantly better over the last two to three years." It's not unusual for charter-school operators to tout breakthroughs they've made -- even if the overall record on charters, which operate outside the bounds of normal school-district rules, is mixed. What's unusual is that Weingarten leads one of the two national teachers unions. And the unions have traditionally hated charter schools.

A dozen years ago, there were no charter schools in the United States. Today, there are more than 3,000 of them. Barely any are unionized, which, to many supporters of the "school choice" movement, was a major selling point in starting charters in the first place. After years of fighting against charter schools, Weingarten, who has served as president of New York's teachers union for a decade, decided it was best to face the challenge head on. In 2005, she opened the two union-run charter schools in Brooklyn, and she will open a third in the Bronx this fall. And she supported organizing drives that now have unionized the teachers at some 70 charter schools in 10 states.

Weingarten's embrace of charters hasn't been total. She fought a proposal to lift a statewide cap on the number of these schools in New York. But Weingarten has demonstrated a willingness to accept that big changes in education policy, such as charters and linking teacher pay to results, have become inevitable. Her ascendance to the presidency of the American Federation of Teachers in July has school superintendents wondering if there will be a new tone coming from across the bargaining table. As it turns out, this school year is a transition time for both teachers unions: the National Education Association this summer also picked a new president, Dennis Van Roekel.

With a new president soon to move into the White House as well, education policy may be coming to a crossroads. Teachers unions have spent the past decade in a defensive crouch, deploying their considerable political muscle to block just about every idea promoted as a reform. Charter schools, merit pay, school vouchers, No Child Left Behind -- the AFT and NEA came out against all of them. At the local level, unions have used their strength in negotiating collective bargaining agreements and in swaying school board elections to push back hard against ideas that they find detrimental to their members and to kids.

Teachers unions, in fact, have become major whipping boys for conservatives, who blame them for just about every ill in American education. Rod Paige, President Bush's first education secretary, once called the NEA a "terrorist organization." Paige apologized for his remark, but he later went on to devote an entire book to the "destructive impact" unions have on education policy.

It's not just conservatives who have come to see unions as a recalcitrant force, however. Politicians and administrators from across the political spectrum have complained about unions clinging to longstanding work rules and fighting accountability measures intended to overhaul an educational system that is failing millions of kids. Joel Klein, Weingarten's main negotiating partner as chancellor of the New York City schools, recently formed an education advocacy group with Rev. Al Sharpton. Their call for greater attention to underperforming schools -- whose status they blame, in part, on teachers unions -- has drawn support from Republican presidential candidate John McCain, as well as Cory Booker, the Democratic mayor of Newark.

Weingarten says she's grown used to being "defiled and blamed and called every name in the book." She calls it a waste of time. And there's certainly evidence to suggest that teachers unions draw more than their fair share of the blame when schools fail. Superintendents and school boards, like the policy groups in Washington, find them a convenient target. What's more, administrators have taken to bypassing union input when trying out new ideas. "One of the reasons you get the cynical 'anti-almost everything' attitude is that they wait for the idea to be publicly framed before they ever invite the unions to the table," says Doug Christensen, who just stepped down as Nebraska's commissioner of education.

That is precisely the dynamic that Weingarten hopes to change. She has challenged her own union to stand for new ideas, not just reject those generated elsewhere. And she has outlined a plan that would provide a much broader menu of services to children, concentrating not just on their time in school but the conditions that make them ready to learn, such as nutrition and health. Will Weingarten get anywhere lobbying for mental health counseling and dental care? That's probably less important than the fact that she wants to lead teachers out of their accustomed role of opposing programs and instead help shape policy that will affect the education of children, in addition to teachers' own jobs.

Political Muscle

It's asking a lot to expect teachers unions to advocate new policies in education. For one thing, it's not their primary mission. Protecting their membership is, and concerns about tenure, compensation and benefits, by their nature, cut against the grain of developing a culture of innovation. Older teachers, hired 20 or 30 years ago with promises of tenure and classroom autonomy, are feeling whipsawed by merit-pay plans and the new obsession with standardized tests. "It's a great balancing act," says Fran Lawrence, president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers. "In certain ways, you're schizophrenic because you do have to balance traditional union concerns -- contract enforcement and grievances -- with advancing education reform and focusing on student achievement and improvement."

It's sometimes said that K-12 education is the most heavily unionized activity outside the U.S. Postal Service. Nearly 90 percent of the nation's teachers belong to either the NEA or the AFT. The AFT has 1.4 million members, almost all of whom are teachers. The NEA is more than twice the size, with 3.2 million members, including a considerable number of school administrators and higher-ed faculty in addition to K-12 teachers. In any state capitol, teachers unions are considered among the most effective lobbying groups. In 2006, unions and their members gave $63 million to state-level candidates, according to the National Institute on State Money in Politics.

Teachers unions may be even more influential at the local level. That's where collective-bargaining agreements set the terms for just about everything that happens in the classroom. What makes teachers unions different from those representing, say, pilots or autoworkers, is their ability to help select the people with whom they negotiate. School board elections are generally low-turnout affairs -- sometimes less than 10 percent of voters cast ballots. That allows motivated unions to have an outsized impact on who wins. Stanford University political scientist Terry Moe has found that 76 percent of the candidates endorsed by unions win school board seats. Those who don't run with union support win only 31 percent of the time.

If a superintendent pushes reforms that the union doesn't like, teachers are known to work at seating a friendlier board. That's exactly what happened last month in Miami-Dade County. Budget problems had forced Superintendent Rudy Crew to block a promised pay raise. The school board debated firing Crew, and ultimately decided not to by a 5-to-4 vote. But school board elections were scheduled for late August, and the union backed several candidates in hopes of winning a majority guaranteed to toss Crew out.

Even when a union leader buys in to an initiative put forward by administrators, it can be a challenge to bring along the rank and file. No union favors ideas that would create winners and losers among members. That's why teachers unions are skeptical about ideas such as paying better teachers better salaries. That's the sticking point in Washington, D.C., where the nation's most closely watched contract negotiations are going on. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee wants to implement a radically different pay scale for teachers. Rhee would boost salaries across the board but allow some teachers, who now top out at $62,000, to make as much as $131,000 if they can boost test scores and otherwise demonstrate student improvement. In exchange, teachers would surrender seniority rights and tenure. The proposal has caused a schism within the local AFT-affiliated union. The president, George Parker, favors the idea, but faces an active challenge from his executive vice president.

In New York, Weingarten's relationship with Chancellor Klein has occasionally turned sour. Klein, who was well-known for handling the Microsoft antitrust case for the Clinton Justice Department, took over the job of running New York City's schools after the state legislature gave Mayor Michael Bloomberg control of them. Weingarten still bristles at the memory of how Klein immediately abandoned an initiative that was pouring $8 million into the city's 40 worst schools, mainly for teacher training. This spring, she accused Klein of "grandstanding" when he blamed school budget cuts on the cost of idle teachers awaiting disciplinary hearings. She also scored no points with him in June when the local union released a survey showing that upwards of 80 percent of its members were dissatisfied with the chancellor.

Although Klein has sometimes pushed new strategies faster than Weingarten was willing to accept them, the two have managed to cut some big deals. Despite her antipathy toward merit pay, Weingarten accepted a plan that offers bonuses to entire staffs working at schools with rising test scores. (The city sweetened the bargain by agreeing to pay $160 million to settle a dispute over teachers' pensions as part of the deal.) In a separate negotiation, she gave up some flexibility on teacher assignments in exchange for very substantial raises. According to Rick Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute, "She said, 'Rather than being bad guys and losing our good name, let me make a few concessions and we'll get some money and emerge in stronger shape.'"

In Shanker's Shadow

Weingarten's willingness to bend a little may signal a more cooperative dynamic between labor and management. Even Rod Paige says that he's "hopeful with respect specifically to her leadership." Paige and others find themselves wondering whether Weingarten will return the AFT to its historic position as a leading generator of new ideas in education.

That was the union's reputation under Albert Shanker. He was a New Yorker who led the same local that Weingarten headed, and who was president of the AFT from 1974 until his death in 1997. Shanker led a series of strikes during the 1960s that created collective-bargaining rights for teachers, and he negotiated contracts that leveled out pay inequities among teachers in different grades and between men and women. These victories laid the foundation for enormous growth not just in the teachers unions but also in government unions in general, at the same time that the labor movement in the private sector was beginning its steep decline.

Shanker's prominence as a union leader gave him a platform from which to promote his ideas. He gave countless speeches and wrote a weekly column that ran as an advertorial in The New York Times and other publications. Shanker was a proud liberal, but some of the ideas he pushed for don't sound, in outline, all that different from the sorts of policies conservatives call for today. He frequently wrote about the importance of having a national competency test for teachers and maintaining high standards for high school graduation. His notion of teacher-friendly schools that would be run outside normal district channels was a forerunner of the charter movement.

The AFT traditionally has been more willing than the NEA to own up to problems such as low-performing schools. That's in part because of Shanker's legacy and in part because its membership works primarily in urban districts where poverty and racial inequities are most acute, while the NEA's base is in the suburbs. True to its name, the NEA has historically thought of itself as more of a professional association than a union; it opposed the concept of collective bargaining until Shanker's success in New York. Bob Chase, NEA's president from 1997 to 2002, talked about creating a "new unionism" that would be more receptive to change, but the widely touted initiative foundered. Incoming NEA president Dennis Van Roekel complains that in the Bush years, "the NEA was just totally shut out of the policy making process."

Van Roekel isn't inclined to shake things up. He says that he intends to take his union in "quote, 'no new direction,'" explaining that the NEA is still trying to achieve an agenda it laid out in 2006, which includes smaller class sizes and more school funding. The NEA has been highly critical of the No Child Left Behind law, which is now overdue for reauthorization. Van Roekel argues that its accountability system has been highly flawed and unfair to teachers. "Accountability is often used as a synonym for blame," Van Roekel says. "And it shouldn't be that."

Rebuilding Trust

If teachers unions seem innately skeptical of experimentation, Weingarten says there's a reason for that. "We've seen so many proposals come and go. Lots of different changes get thrown out as reform and it changes the next year when a new person comes in." She has a point. The current era of radical ideas -- from charters to vouchers to merit pay -- seems to have taught that no single solution has the power to solve intractable problems such as high dropout rates or the racial achievement gap.

Proponents of these ideas say they haven't been given a fair shake -- for which they blame the unions, of course. "The reasons the results are not as dramatic is that there's so much pain in getting them implemented," says Sandy Kress, a Bush adviser who helped craft No Child Left Behind and several education laws in Texas. "One of the most frustrating things about fighting the unions is that they fight like hell to stop the implementation of reforms, and then they crow that it's not working."

For all that conservatives have clashed with the unions over the years, there are signs of detente. Even Kress concedes that the Texas unions helped to push state laws addressing social promotion and persistently disruptive students. And in Minnesota, Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty was able to pass a merit-pay system for teachers by asking union officials for help in designing it. "As a Republican governor, I could say, "Thou shalt do this,' and the unions would say, 'Thou shalt go jump in the lake,'" Pawlenty said last year. "But here, they partnered with us."

Collaboration is a message Pawlenty continues to push with national union leaders. Certainly, it's better that way. Education doesn't need to be a naturally contentious field. Everyone involved -- policy makers and politicians, unions and administrators -- speaks with sincere conviction about the same set of goals. They all want to improve schools so that more children have the chance to succeed as adults. Therefore, they all would be glad to share credit for success. But since there have not been enough examples of success to go around, everyone indulges in the blame game. "A lot of the conflict between labor and management," says Tim Daly, president of the New Teachers Project, "comes from our shared disappointment as an educational community that we're not doing well enough."