NEW YORK (AP) – Sandra Feldman, an advocate for equal rights in education who rose through the ranks to lead New York’s public school teachers and then the nation’s second-largest teachers union, has died at age 65.

Feldman died Sunday night at her Manhattan home of cancer, said Edward J. McElroy, who succeeded her as president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Feldman, who lived in Manhattan, retired last year after seven years leading the union because of a recurrence of breast cancer. She had said weekly treatments made “doing the job with the justice it deserves – or at least up to my standards – impossible.”

As president of the 90,000-member New York local, the United Federation of Teachers, from 1986 to 1997, Feldman improved conditions for teachers, increasing salaries and winning sabbaticals for those with 14 years experience. She sued the city over schools’ physical deterioration and became a force in electing mayors and selecting school chancellors.

She followed in the footsteps of Albert Shanker, whom she succeeded as president at the UFT and its parent union, the Washington-based AFT, which with 1.7 million members ranks behind only the National Education Association.

As national president from 1997 to 2004, she supported tough entrance requirements for teachers and standardized tests and opposed social promotion.

McElroy said “presidents, members of Congress, educators and business leaders relied on her expertise and ideas to help forge their own opinions on how to help those who needed it most.”

When Feldman retired, she criticized George W. Bush’s presidency as “an administration that sees no value in public institutions, that doesn’t get the connections between public schools and democracy … that seems to suggest children will pull themselves up by their bootstraps, like cowboys.”

And in an echo of her lifelong dedication to equal rights, she implored her members to help poor students, saying, “We will never be fully successful if we don’t achieve equity, and that fight takes great solidarity. It is very easy for haves and have-nots to turn against each other – or, at the very least, not to help each other. But it takes believers to do the right thing.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said Feldman “was a giant in the field of education” and was one of the nation’s most effective champions for equal educational opportunity for children.

“She understood the profound importance of a good education and good teachers in unlocking the door to the American dream for disadvantaged children,” Kennedy said. “Tens of millions of young students are better off today and will have better lives because of her.”

UFT president Randi Weingarten said, “Those who knew her well know how hard she worked and how much she sacrificed so others would have social justice and economic opportunity.”

Feldman grew up in a New York tenement and public housing. She studied English at Brooklyn College and taught at Public School 34 in Manhattan while pursuing a master’s degree in literature at New York University. She became a field representative for the UFT in 1966.

Feldman is survived by her husband, Arthur Barnes, who is a senior vice president for external affairs of HIP Health Plans, a brother, a sister, two children and two grandchildren of Barnes.

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