Education Funding

District-Union Tensions Foil Some RTT Proposals

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — November 13, 2012 6 min read
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Disagreement over teacher-evaluation methods and the sustainability and desirability of the programs to be financed by the latest Race to the Top competition has come to a head in several prominent districts, scuttling some plans to apply for the grant and delaying the applications of others.

The $400 million Race to the Top district competition is offering grants of up to $40 million for school systems to undertake improvements aimed at personalizing learning for students and adding technology. To be eligible for grants, though, districts must, by the 2014-15 school year, have evaluations in place for teachers, principals, and superintendents—often a point of contention for teachers. The grant applications, which were due this month, required sign-off from teachers’ unions by the application date.

Disputes between districts and unions over the plans for those applications caused school systems in San Francisco; Oakland, Calif.; Palm Beach County, Fla., and Portland, Ore., to forgo submitting them. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles and Glendale school districts, in California, both sought to submit their applications without union approval. The Clark County, Nev., and Fresno, Calif., districts and their unions reached agreements during an extension granted to all school systems because of the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast.

The unions involved in these conflicts were all National Education Association affiliates. (United Teachers Los Angeles is an affiliate of both the American Federation of Teachers and the NEA.)

Lessons Learned

“Reforms work only if there is genuine labor-management collaboration and a sharing of responsibility,” said Randi Weingarten, the AFT’s national president. “Never before Race to the Top was there so much conflict over a grant process, where people were blamed if you didn’t submit an application.”

Ms. Weingarten submitted a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan late last month detailing instances in which AFT affiliates alleged that districts had tried to circumvent the grant requirement for a union signature.

Race to the Top Run-Up

Tensions between districts and teachers’ unions played out in different ways among a sampling of districts competing for a grant in the federal Race to the Top district competition.

Application Submitted With Union Signature
Fresno Unified, Calif.
Clark County, Nev.
Sanger Unified, Calif.

No Agreement Reached
San Francisco Unified
Oakland Unified, Calif.
Palm Beach County, Fla.
Portland, Ore.

Application Submitted Without Union Signature
Glendale Unified, Calif.
Los Angeles Unified

SOURCE: Education Week

Grants developed through collaboration between districts and union affiliates are more likely to be implemented as planned, said Donna M. Harris-Aikens, the director of the NEA’s education policy and practice department.

Requiring a union representative’s signature may have been a response to previous Race to the Top competitions, said Timothy Daly, the president of the New York City-based nonprofit TNTP, formerly the New Teacher Project. “In the state competition, some promises written into applications weren’t followed through on because the union wasn’t actually on board in the first place,” he said.

Sticking Points

The department estimates that 15 to 25 districts will receive four-year awards. The final application date was Nov. 8 for districts affected by Hurricane Sandy and Nov. 2 for all others; the federal department was set to announce the number of applications later this week.

The grant’s requirement that teacher evaluations be tied to student-test-score growth was a sticking point in some districts where those scores are not currently factored in. The president of the Oakland Education Association, Trish Gorham, said one of her concerns was that shifts in evaluation systems “should not be part of the grant-writing process.”

Troy Flint, a spokesman for the 37,000-student Oakland district, said test scores would have been only one of several measures used to evaluate teachers.

Union leaders in the 311,000-student Clark County district, which includes Las Vegas, the 177,000-student Palm Beach County schools, and elsewhere also said they had not had time to review the proposals: Districts had less than three months to draft application plans.

But other complaints about the Race to the Top program ran deeper and came both from within and outside of unions. “I’m frustrated, quite frankly, that the federal government would put these kinds of carrots out there for districts but give them such a narrow range of time to write and come up with the ideas,” said Ms. Gorham.

Jonathan P. Raymond, the superintendent of the Sacramento, Calif., district, which has 47,900 students, issued a public letter to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman lambasting the program. “Forcing school districts to compete for badly needed resources is like offering a starving man food but only if he agrees to whatever strings may be attached,” Mr. Raymond wrote.

In the 664,000-student Los Angeles district, union officials were worried that the program had a $43.3 million budget but only a $40 million grant. “We were trying to be budgetarily responsible [by not signing the grant], and we were vilified for doing so,” said Warren Fletcher, the UTLA president.

However, Rick Miller, the executive director of the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, a coalition of eight districts formed during the second Race to the Top application process, said he believed the grants were sustainable. “These grants would be additional dollars [for districts] to do work they want to do anyway,” he said.

Costs of Applying

In California, the grants submitted by Fresno, Sanger, and Clovis—which have 73,000 students, 10,900 students, and 38,900 students, respectively—cost more than $500,000 to put together and hundreds of hours in district staff time, Mr. Miller said. That money came from private foundations that donate to the CORE. But he said that the groups were working with the consulting firm Parthenon Group of San Francisco to ensure that some of the plans could be carried out even if the districts don’t win federal funding.

In Los Angeles, Superintendent John Deasy submitted the district’s application without the union’s support, to make the case that, “after months of trying repeatedly to form a partnership for youth and faculty on this issue, our students should not be penalized due to the absence of a UTLA signature,” he wrote in a statement.

Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, said Mr. Deasy had done “what he should have. ... They at least are making every attempt to pursue reforms and seek the resources to do so.”

But the UTLA’s Mr. Fletcher called the submission a stunt. “It sent the inaccurate message to the voting public that we were fighting over money as opposed to all working together to get a funding lifeline [through Proposition 30, a tax measure],” he said.

Richard M. Sheehan, the superintendent of the 26,300-student Glendale district, also chose to submit his district’s grant proposal without the union’s signature. Neither district has heard back from the federal department on whether the grants would be considered.

The disputes over the applications received news media and public attention, much of it critical of the unions.

“With the lure of money [from the grants] in a time of tremendous fiscal constraint, you had a lot of press attention that was focused on these conflicts,” said Ms. Weingarten. “But sometimes, it just wasn’t the appropriate grant.”

Down to the Wire

Both Clark County and Fresno applied for the grant only after public officials coaxed unions into negotiation just before the extended application deadline.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval facilitated a discussion between the Clark County Education Association and district officials. And in Fresno, the city’s mayor, Ashley Swearengin, and a broad coalition of community members all jumped into the fray, encouraging the union to get on board with the grant. The union eventually signed off at 2 a.m. Nov. 2—the day the application was due.

Fresno Superintendent Michael Hanson said that part of his district’s success could be attributed to the fact that the grant aligned with the cash-strapped community’s focus on early-childhood education and emphasized supporting teachers’ “heartbreaking, bone-crushing” work. “If we were union bashing, we wouldn’t have gotten there.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2012 edition of Education Week as Disputes Derail Districts’ RTT Applications


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