By Nick Anderson
Saturday, April 3, 2010; A03
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.
"In Delaware, you don't have to choose between consensus and bold" action, Gov. Jack A. Markell (D) said. "In Delaware, you get both."
Markell and the president of the state teachers union traveled to Washington last month to pitch the plan 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, the disparity in national reading test scores between white and black eighth-graders narrowed more in Delaware than anywhere else.
Under Delaware's plan, the state will launch periodic tests to obtain an evolving record of student achievement during a school year, instead of an annual snapshot.
It will pay for high school students to take the SAT college entrance test and will hire "data coaches" to help educators put test results to work. It will also establish formulas for satisfactory annual growth. Only teachers whose students show such growth will be eligible to be rated effective -- or highly effective, if students show more than one year of gain.
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 improve 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."
At Dover High School, there seemed to be as many fears as hopes about Race to the Top.
"It's exciting but a little bit nerve-racking," said Principal Gene Montaño. His school has a strong Advanced Placement college preparatory program but recently has fallen short of achievement targets for some disadvantaged students, which could lead to interventions.
"So what does that mean for us?" Montaño said. "I don't know."
Social studies teacher Thomas Leighty vented in the hallway as his students were watching a history video in the classroom. He said many teachers doubt that they can be fairly judged on test scores, even if data are handled carefully and other factors are taken into account.
"What really gets a lot of us is there's nothing here about parents being accountable for lack of parental support, and student responsibility," he said. If test scores tank, he added, "this can't be all my fault."
Backers of the Delaware plan say teacher concerns will be assuaged because in such a small state, there is no other choice.
"Our teachers unions were at the table every step of the way," said state Education Secretary Lillian M. Lowery. "It's just the way Delaware gets things done. Compromise is not a bad thing."