The election of Randi Weingarten as president of the American Federation of Teachers this past summer signaled a greater willingness from that union to accept that new ideas and education "reforms" are inevitable. In a speech today at the National Press Club, Weingarten underscored such openness, saying that her union would be open to discussing nearly all ideas, but expects and demands a role in shaping new policies.

"No issue, with the exception of vouchers, is off the table for discussion," Weingarten said. "What's going to be high on our list is anything that's good for kids and fair to teachers."

Among the traditionally contentious ideas that Weingarten suggested a willingness to consider are the accountability and standards movement exemplified by the federal No Child Left Behind law; differential or merit pay; and tenure.

"Some see tenure not as fairness but as a fortress that prevents incompetent teachers from ever being fired," she said. "It isn't, and it shouldn't be."

Weingarten suggested that changes to tenure could be achieved if more districts adopted the model pioneered in Toledo and other AFT-represented districts, where teachers have engaged in a peer-review process.

The Washington Teachers Union, an AFT affiliate, is currently engaged in a high-profile negotiation with D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Rhee's plan would greatly boost teachers salaries, but at the expense of tenure and seniority. The Washington Post reported Sunday that Fenty and Rhee are considering actions to circumvent the union by converting the system to one structured around charter schools.

In addition to signaling her desire for a collaborative approach, Weingarten called for more investment in education. She warned of the dangers if state and local governments, currently hard hit by the economic downturn, balance their budgets on the backs of schools. "This disinvestment in education may help state and local bottom lines this year," she said, "but it will create a race to the bottom that will affect our economy for years to come."

Weingarten outlined several steps she would like to see districts and states take, including rebuilding and rewiring inadequate schools.

This does not appear to be the right moment for her to achieve on a national scale the type of pay increases she negotiated as head of the AFT affiliate in New York City -- a 43 percent raise since 2002.

But her openness to ideas that unions have traditionally abhorred holds promise for duplicating other innovations out of New York, such as a system of differential pay that rewards all teachers for improved performance at a given school. All but two of the 191 eligible schools that have signaled their intent for next year have decided to participate, she said.

"If anyone doubts Randi Weingarten's ability to bring improvement in education, just look at New York City," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who introduced her. Bloomberg noted that the district's terminally high turnover rate has come down and that the city now received 10 times as many applications as it can fill each year.

"I'm just glad everything is on the table but vouchers," said former North Carolina Gov. James Hunt, who heads an education think tank at UNC-Chapel Hill, during a brief interview. "That's the way it ought to be."