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Teaching Profession

NEA Knocks Administration on ‘Race to the Top’

By Stephen Sawchuk — August 22, 2009 2 min read
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Officials of the National Education Association issued a stinging criticism yesterday of the Obama administration’s “narrow agenda” for the Race to the Top program and formally announced the union’s opposition to key elements of the $4.35 billion initiative.

Among other areas, the NEA said it would not support the program’s goals of encouraging states to use test scores for evaluating teachers, increasing the number of charter schools, and bolstering alternative routes to teacher licensure.

In a strongly worded letter, the union intimated that Education Secretary Arne Duncan was reneging on his promise to promote education reform by being “tighter” on goals, but giving states and districts more flexibility to achieve reforms.

“The administration’s theory of success now seems to be tight on the goals and tight on the means,” Kay Brilliant, the NEA’s director of education policy and practice, wrote in the letter to Duncan that accompanied its formal comments on the proposals. “We find that top-down approach disturbing. We have been down that road before with the failures of No Child Left Behind, and we cannot support yet another layer of federal mandates that have little or no research base of success and that usurp state and local governments’ responsibilities for public education.”

The tough talk underscores an increasingly complex relationship between the traditionally Democratic-leaning 3.2 million-member union and the administration it helped elect.

NEA officials publicly said that they agreed with the goals of the Race to the Top program, which is oriented around the four “assurances” in the economic-stimulus legislation: to improve teacher and principal effectiveness, turn around the lowest-performing schools, bolster standards and assessments, and update data systems.

Duncan, meanwhile, promised to work with teachers rather than imposing reforms on them.

But the detailed guidelines for the Race to the Top, released last month, conflicted directly with NEA policies, making strife with the union all but inevitable. For instance, it proposed giving a competitive advantage to states that eliminated caps on charter schools. The union strongly supports caps.

“Despite growing evidence to the contrary, it appears that the administration has decided that charter schools are the only answer to what ails America’s public schools,” Ms. Brilliant wrote.

The criteria also put a premium on using test scores for evaluating, paying, and granting teachers tenure. Two states with barriers to using such data in evaluations, California and Wisconsin, are at various stages of trying to rework them so they can be eligible for the funds.

In its attached comments, the union also raised the specter of legal challenges, stating that the program’s priority on overhauling teacher evaluation, pay, and tenure would contravene local collective bargaining agreements. The administration must require reforms to policies involving teachers to be set in contracts, the union wrote.

In 2007, similar concerns about the use of tests for rating teachers and about collective bargaining helped derail congressional attempts to renew the NCLB law.

Requests for comment from NEA officials were not immediately returned.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.