Special Report
Education Funding

Two State Unions Balking at ‘Race to Top’ Plans

By Stephen Sawchuk — December 30, 2009 7 min read
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Teachers’ unions in at least two states are threatening to withhold endorsements of their states’ Race to the Top applications, which could jeopardize the states’ chances of winning the coveted federal dollars.

In a letter printed as an advertisement in the Tallahassee Democrat, Florida Education Association President Andy J. Ford discouraged local union affiliates from signing an agreement to implement a state plan that, among other provisions, would require districts to base teacher evaluations and compensation bonuses heavily on student test scores.

“Any sense of collaboration is absent in your proposal,” Mr. Ford wrote in the Dec. 17 letter to Florida Commissioner of Education Eric J. Smith. “Your approach is prescriptive, top down, and unreasonable.”

The president of Education Minnesota, Thomas A. Dooher, said he will also advise local affiliates not to sign off on the state application unless officials there agree to changes, including dropping a requirement that participating districts implement a pay program that has been voluntary for districts.

The Race to the Top program, part of the economic-stimulus legislation passed last year, has been problematic for the national teachers’ unions because of its heavy emphasis on using student test scores to measure teacher effectiveness. Now the action has moved to the state and local levels, as states prepare applications for the Jan. 19 deadline for the first round of funding.

The $4 billion program is forcing states to engage in a delicate balancing act of aggressively pursuing the money while keeping support from state and local union affiliates.

“We’re bumping up against a reality where the teaching profession is resisting doing a lot of things that are pretty sensible,” said Charles Barone, the director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee that has been highly critical of teachers’ unions. “We’re in for a showdown. The unions aren’t going to give in most cases, and I think the [Obama] administration is going to have to see what it’s got in front of it.”

Points at Stake

But Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the state-affiliate pushback is an appropriate reaction to what she contends is a top-down approach by state officials to crafting the applications.

“In some places, the state has said to the unions, ‘You don’t know what’s in the application, but please sign this commitment anyway.’ Who in their right mind would do that?” she said. “You basically have both of these state organizations saying they want to work this out. They are trying to get management to engage in the collaborative way envisioned by the secretary of education.”

The Race to the Top initiative requires states to take action around four broad “assurances” in the stimulus legislation, including ensuring effective teachers in all classrooms. The largest percentage of points—138 out of 500—will be awarded to states that overhaul their teacher-quality systems, in part by evaluating teachers annually and tying the results to how teachers are compensated, granted tenure, and promoted.

Under Minnesota’s proposed application, districts participating in the Race to the Top would adopt the Q Comp program, a school-reform approach that includes professional development, annual teacher evaluations, a career-ladder initiative, and an alternative salary schedule based partly on student performance. The voluntary program allows local districts to bargain what percent of the pay component is based on measures of student growth.

But Mr. Dooher charges that the state’s Race to the Top proposal is little more than an attempt to make Q Comp mandatory, a goal Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, outlined in his State of the State address last January.

“We see this as a way of going around the legislative process and trying to get it into a federal grant,” said Mr. Dooher, whose union is an affiliate of both the AFT and the National Education Association.

The state union has advised local affiliates not to sign local agreements to participate in Race to the Top until it receives additional guidance from the state. It is seeking a heavier emphasis on teacher induction, peer-assistance and -review programs, and training for new teachers.

“We’ve talked to our entire congressional delegation so they can get the word to Secretary [of Education Arne] Duncan that what we’re trying to accomplish is to get the best application possible,” Mr. Dooher said. “We’re not trying to kill the application, but we do want the [U.S. Department of Education] to communicate that [states] have got to collaborate meaningfully with teachers’ unions to make this a successful application.”

‘Very Disappointing’

But Alice M. Seagren, Minnesota’s commissioner of education, said she will hold firm to the state’s proposal to place Q Comp at the center of its teacher-effectiveness plans. The nearly 5-year-old initiative is nationally recognized, has been embraced by teachers in the 44 districts out of 340 that now participate, and gives the state a competitive advantage, she said.

Many of the union’s proposals are already part of the state’s Race to the Top application, she added.

“We have tried to address [the union’s fears] by saying, ‘Look, we have multiple measurements of teacher performance,’ ” she said. “I think the bottom line is discomfort by some in the union membership of tying pay to student achievement.”

Florida’s plan would base at least 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation on measures of student achievement and would require participating districts to use the information to implement performance-based pay programs.

But Mr. Ford, the president of the state union, which is also affiliated with both national organizations, said the plan is being imposed by the state and does not allow local affiliates to pilot their own innovations.

“These decisions need to be made at the local level, not dictated from Tallahassee,” he said.

Ms. Weingarten of the AFT drew a contrast between the Race to the Top application in Florida and the collaborative work in the state’s Hillsborough County district last year, which allowed it to win a seven-year grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to promote effective teaching.

“It’s very disappointing that Eric Smith would look at that as a model and take the opposite stance in the Race to the Top proposal,” she said of the state’s education commissioner.

In a Dec. 17 response to Mr. Ford’s letter, Mr. Smith said the state Race to the Top application process would still involve teacher input.

The possibility of losing union endorsement is troubling for states. As part of the Race to the Top application process, they must collect as many signed “memorandums of understanding” as possible from districts, including from the leader of the local teachers’ union.

Union endorsements are not a prerequisite for a state to win a grant, but more signatures show greater local commitment, federal Education Department officials have said in technical-assistance meetings with states.

So while officials in Florida’s department of education say that 63 of the state’s 69 districts have agreed to participate in the Race to the Top process, no district’s local union affiliate has signed on, Mr. Ford said.

Memorandums the Key

With state affiliates now playing the main role, the national unions are closely following their work.

Ms. Weingarten said her union has been hosting webinars on the Race to the Top for its affiliates. She has endorsed Montana’s application as an example of high-quality union-management collaboration.

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel has met with the presidents of state affiliates to discuss Race to the Top matters, according to Mr. Dooher.

The state memorandums differ markedly in how tightly they would hold local districts and unions to seeing through changes if grants were won. That means that even states that avoid organized opposition from state unions now could face setbacks farther down the road.

Florida’s memorandum contains language requiring districts and unions to renegotiate contracts in accordance with the state plan. Those that failed to do so would forfeit their grants. Minnesota, similarly, will require districts and unions to bargain their Q Comp plans within two years or be dropped from the grant, Ms. Seagren said.

But other states plan to give more flexibility to local unions, in what critics say could allow educators to water down or ignore the state reform plan.

Massachusetts’ memorandum stipulates that reform-plan elements subject to collective bargaining can be implemented only if a pact is reached by local districts and the union.

In Kansas, local teachers’ unions can essentially veto whether a district participates in the Race to the Top program. The state will permit local unions to terminate the memorandum if they don’t approve of the actions their districts will take to implement the state plan. The language was requested by the Kansas National Education Association, said Diane DeBacker, the state’s interim education commissioner.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as 2 State Unions Balking at Plans For Race to Top


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