Input of teachers unions key to successful entries in Race to the Top

By Nick Anderson
Saturday, April 3, 2010

DOVER, DEL. -- Delaware's surprising first-place finish in a fierce battle for federal school-reform dollars highlights a tension in President Obama's education agenda: He favors big change, but he also prizes 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's 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.

The announcement that Delaware 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's bid, rated last among 16 finalists, was opposed by the local union.

Labor leaders say reform plans work better when developed with the teachers who must carry them out. But critics say unions are often the biggest obstacle to the changes 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 this week's losers to trim their boldest proposals.

"Experience has shown that reform that starts with the premise that you can only go as fast as the slowest ship in the convoy tends not to go very far at all," said analyst Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. "I'm worried that it gives a fundamental veto, or at least a lot of influence, to the least reform-minded participants."

Across the country, Hess predicted, unions will gain leverage from this week's outcome. A Florida union opposed to that state's plan seized on the examples of Delaware and Tennessee, arguing that revisions with input from labor would give Florida "a second chance to get it right."

Union backing was no guarantee of success in the first round. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky secured a slew of labor endorsements but came away empty. Still, documents posted on the Education Department's Web site show that 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 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.

Experts debate the merits of labor peace. D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has overseen reading and math gains despite a labor situation so rancorous that teachers have worked more than two years under an expired contract. But other urban school leaders with better labor relations have also shown gains. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also chose to team with unions in a four-city initiative to promote effective teaching that resembles Race to the Top.

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. And they vow that innovation will not be sacrificed.

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