Published Online: April 23, 2010
Updated: March 23, 2012

Tensions Flare in Race to Top's Second Round

States, Teachers’ Unions Clash Over Contest-Driven Reforms

With the second-round deadline for federal Race to the Top Fund grants less than six weeks away, states are rushing to raise the stakes on their education reform plans as they fight over the remaining $3.4 billion in prize money.

But in doing so, states from Massachusetts to Colorado are tangling with their teachers’ unions as they test how far they can go to meet federal officials’ demands that they be aggressive, yet inclusive, in devising a road map to dramatically improve student achievement.

“On one hand, the federal government is saying, ‘Be bold,’ which implies significant challenge to the status quo, which then tends to be disruptive and generate resistance,” said S. Paul Reville, the education secretary in Massachusetts, where the American Federation of Teachers affiliate has revoked its support of the state’s second-round application over teacher issues. “Yet at the same time, the federal government is asking us to get full [district and union] support,” he said. “That’s the dynamic tension.”

In Florida, legislation that would have revamped teacher evaluations, potentially positioning the state for a better Race to the Top score, sparked an outcry from teachers; Republican Gov. Charlie Crist ended up vetoing the legislation.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist talks with Susan Beauchamp, a school counselor at Twin Lakes Academy Elementary School in Jacksonville, Fla. On a recent campaign stop for his U.S. Senate bid, a crowd of teachers and other education specialists thanked the governor for vetoing a bill that would have tied their pay to student test scores.
—Bob Mack/The Florida Times-Union/AP

In Maine, the National Education Association affiliate is urging local union leaders not to support the state’s application after lawmakers passed legislation allowing schools to use student achievement as a factor in teacher and principal evaluations.

And in Louisiana, pending legislation to link at least half a teacher’s evaluation to student test scores—a priority under the Race to the Top—has come under intense fire from the Louisiana Association of Educators, an NEA affiliate, which has turned to automated phone calls and newspaper ads to rally opposition.

Not securing district and union support has its dangers, since nearly 20 percent of the Race to the Top’s 500-point grading scaleRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader hinges on such support. Still, relying too much on buy-in also has its dangers, said Timothy Daly, the president of the New Teacher Project, a New York City-based nonprofit group that helps urban districts train and hire teachers.

“It’s leading states to make bad decisions, to water down the content and get everyone to sign on,” he said. “And many states will end up sorry.”

Some Holdouts

Not everyone is strategizing for round two of this $4 billion competition, which last month saw two winners—Delaware and Tennessee—capture $600 million in the first round, out of 41 applicants. ("$3.4 Billion Remains in Race to Top Fund," April 7, 2010.) The funding comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus package passed last year by Congress. Round-two applications are due June 1, with the money to be awarded by September.

Kansas, which ranked 29th out of 41 first-round applicants, has already bowed out of the competition. And, in a sign that they will not compete in round two, Alaska and Texas—neither of which applied the first time—were among the seven states that did not attend, either by conference call or in person, an optional April 21 technical-assistance planning session the U.S. Department of Education held in Minneapolis for prospective round-two applicants.

Indiana appears out of the competition, too, amid an increasingly bitter feud between state Superintendent Tony Bennett, an elected Republican, and the state’s largest teachers’ union. After the Indiana State Teachers Association turned down an invitation to meet formally to plot out a Race to the Top strategy, Mr. Bennett announced this week that Indiana would not apply in round two—because of the union’s lack of cooperation.

Race to the Top: Round Two

With the second-round applications due June 1, and up to $3.4 billion still on the table, this state education reform competition is heating up—and producing tension between state leaders and teachers’ unions.

Colorado

The state affiliate of the National Education Association, which had worked closely with state officials in the first round, is opposing the second-round application over concerns about a legislative proposal that would significantly revamp how teachers are evaluated.

Florida

Republican Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed legislation that would have tied teacher pay to student test scores, a proposal that caused an uproar from teachers.

Indiana

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett announced the state would not compete in round two, citing a lack of cooperation from the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Massachusetts

The state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers has voted to withdraw support for the second-round application over concerns about the state’s approach to turning around low-performing schools, among other issues. AFT-Massachusetts had supported the state’s first-round application.

“Without support from the union that represents more than 90 percent of Indiana’s school districts, our application will not be competitively positioned,” Mr. Bennett said in a statement.

The Indiana teachers’ association said it wanted “meaningful work sessions,” and not a “media event arranged for the purpose of strong-arming ISTA into agreeing to an unequivocal sign-off” of the state’s application, according to an April 21 letter by Nate Schellenberger, the president of the NEA affiliate.

Yet some observers worry that all the attention to union buy-in may be skewing the focus of the Race to the Top competition. Such buy-in does make up a sizable chunk of points, but 48 percent of points are attached to the quality of a state’s plan in four key areas: standards and assessments, data systems, teacher and principal effectiveness, and turning around the lowest-achieving schools.

“There’s a myth being perpetuated that buy-in is the decisive factor, but there are states showing they can have statewide impact without everyone saying they’re happy,” said Charles Barone, the director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee that’s been tracking and critiquing the Race to the Top competition. “It shouldn’t be a popularity contest.”

Although the signature of a local district superintendent is required to demonstrate that a school district is participating in the state’s plan, a union’s sign-on is optional. It does offer further evidence of district support, however, and helps boost scores.

In choosing Delaware and Tennessee as round-one winners, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pointed to considerable district and union buy-in—enough to mean each state’s plan would reach 100 percent of the student population—as being instrumental. (In a tie between two states, the state with the best score on the district-buy-in portion of the application wins.) But Mr. Duncan also highlighted other features in those states’ applications, in each of the four key reform areas.

‘Go Back and Try’

The runners-up, meanwhile, show that buy-in isn’t the determining factor. Georgia placed third with only 12.7 percent of its districts participating (and no unions, because it’s a “right to work” state), and Florida came in fourth with just 8 percent of the unions from participating school districts signing on.

While buy-in may not be the major determinant in scoring, it’s crucial in a practical sense, said Diane Donohue, the president of the Delaware State Education Association, which played a big role in that state’s successful Race to the Top application.

“Without the very people who have to do that work, it’s going to be very hard to do [any] reform effort,” Ms. Donohue told prospective applicants at the Education Department’s applicants’ meeting in Minneapolis. “Go back and try to have those conversations and get those people on board.”

In Rhode Island, Commissioner of Education Deborah A. Gist is trying to do that, since just 5 percent of unions from participating districts were on board in round one. The state is holding a series of public hearings to get more feedback and consensus.

“Gaining support from all districts and unions will surely help us in our Race to the Top,” Ms. Gist said in a statement.

And in New York, the chancellor of the state board of regents, Merryl Tisch, has said her state won’t compete if unions and state lawmakers don’t agree on changes to improve the state’s charter school sector and teacher-evaluation system, local media reports said.

Other states are charging ahead in round two in the face of union opposition.

In Colorado, a bill pending in the legislature that would change how teachers are evaluated, more strongly tying those decisions to student performance, is being opposed by the Colorado Education Association, an NEA affiliate.

The legislation is prompting the CEA to withdraw support for the state’s round-two application—a sharp contrast to the ultra-collaborative approach Colorado’s education community took in round one. ("Sprinting To Secure Top Prize," Nov. 11, 2009.)

“We understand the financial constraints the districts are under, and $175 million is still a huge boost for us,” said Linda Barker, the director of teaching and learning for the CEA, referring to the potential award money if Colorado wins a grant. “The money is important, but at what cost?”

The union is opposed to the changed course for improving teacher quality—and a faster timeline—and still supports the round-one initiative to put that work in the hands of a governor’s council. But state officials believe that Colorado needs a law on the books, and not just a council, to make a stronger second run at the Race to the Top.

“The primary purpose of the legislation is it’s good policy,” said Nina Lopez, the director of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the Colorado education department. Despite the state-union tension over that legislation, she said, there is still “fundamental agreement around 90 percent of what we’re doing, so there’s no intention of not moving forward.”

In Massachusetts, the aft affiliate backed the round-one application but is changing course for round two. Aft Massachusetts President Thomas J. Gosnell said that the mass firing of staff members at low-performing Central Falls HighSchool in neighboring Rhode Island was among the reasons.

“If this can happen in Rhode Island, this can happen here,” said Mr. Gosnell, who said Massachusetts education leaders supported the Central Falls action.

However, Mr. Reville, the Massachusetts education secretary, writes in an upcoming commentary in the New England Journal of Higher Education that he would never support the “wholesale, undifferentiated firing of an entire faculty,” but that restructuring and staff changes certainly will be made in the lowest-performing schools.

In addition, Mr. Gosnell said, there’s reluctance to support round two since the union was pressured to support passage of a new charter-school-expansion law enacted to help Massachusetts win a Race to the Top grant, only to see the state end up losing in round one.

But Mr. Reville, the education secretary, said Massachusetts isn’t going to back down from a “sound set of strategies” that has produced strong student achievement that places the state at the top of national rankings.

“We’re seeking the advice and the suggestions of everyone in the field,” Mr. Reville said. “But we’re not going to get into a negotiation.”

Vol. 29, Issue 30

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Clarification: Tom Gosnell, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, has clarified his remarks about the union’s decision not to support that state’s Race to the Top Fund application. Mr. Gosnell said that Massachusetts teachers fear that mass firings such as those at Central Falls High School, in neighboring Rhode Island, could also happen in their state. He said that even though Massachusetts officials have been supportive of teachers regarding the Central Falls situation, teachers remain worried because of federal officials’ support of such aggressive turnaround efforts.

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