Union support helps Del. win Race to Top funds

Plans for education reform drafted with teachers' input

April 04, 2010|By Nick Anderson | The Washington Post

DOVER, Del. —

- Delaware's surprising first-place finish in a fierce battle for federal school reform dollars highlights a tension in President Barack Obama's education agenda: He favors big change but also values peace with the labor unions that sometimes resist his goals.

Obama often has challenged unions - even voicing support last month for a Rhode Island school board vote to fire all the teachers at a struggling high school - but his administration built the $4 billion Race to the Top contest in a way that rewarded applications crafted in consultation with labor leaders.

Monday's announcement that Delaware's top-rated plan had won about $100 million highlighted that all of the state's teachers unions backed the plan for tougher teacher evaluations linked to student achievement. In second-place Tennessee, which won about $500 million, 93 percent of unions were on board. By contrast, applications from Florida and Louisiana were considered innovative but fell short in part because they had less union support. The District of Columbia's bid, rated last among 16 finalists, was opposed by the local union. Rankings were based on a 500-point scale used to assess applications.

Labor leaders say reform plans work better when developed in cooperation with the teachers who must carry them out. But critics say unions are often the biggest obstacle to the change needed to raise student performance. With more than $3 billion still up for grabs as the second round of the contest begins, a key issue is whether the administration's emphasis on union buy-in will lead last week's losers to alter their proposals.

Union backing was no guarantee of success in the first round. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky all secured a slew of labor endorsements but came away empty. Still, documents posted on the Education Department Web site show contest judges were skeptical about the viability of some state plans that were short on labor support.

California, which had enacted major school improvement legislation, finished a disappointing 27th out of 41 competitors. Many local labor leaders withheld their signatures from the state bid. "The lack of union buy-in at this stage raises serious concerns about the ability of the state to implement the Race to the Top reforms," one judge wrote. If California reapplies, it could be forced to address that question.

In Delaware, teachers unions have joined forces with business executives, philanthropists and politicians in a reform movement that has been building for years. Collaboration, participants say, is not a matter of political convenience. Innovation, they vow, will not be sacrificed.

"In Delaware, you don't have to choose between consensus and bold" action, Democratic Gov. Jack A. Markell said. "In Delaware you get both."

Markell and the president of the state teachers union traveled to Washington last month to pitch the plan together to Race to the Top judges. With 126,800 students, Delaware offers a microcosm of public education challenges. Its schools serve the urban poor in metropolitan Wilmington near Interstate 95, as well as rural and immigrant students to the south. The state has shrunk racial achievement gaps significantly in the past decade. From 1998 to 2009, for example, the disparity in national reading test scores between white and black eighth-graders narrowed more in Delaware than anywhere else.

Persistently ineffective teachers, with or without tenure, will be at greater risk of losing their jobs. Highly effective teachers will be eligible for bonuses of up to $5,000 to transfer to high-needs schools and up to $10,000 if they stay in such schools and continue to excel. The state will also pressure low-performing schools to raise their game or face major shakeups. A last resort, officials say, following federal policy, could be removal of the principal and at least half the teachers.

All of this strikes union leaders as difficult for their members.

"No one's naive," said Diane Donohue, president of the Delaware State Education Association. "This is going to be very challenging work. Absolutely we're taking a risk."

But Donohue said union leaders accepted the terms because they were guaranteed a voice in implementation and feared the consequences of not participating. She quoted Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, as saying: "I'd rather be at the table than on the menu."

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