Are unions blocking school reform?

“Teachers must be treated as partners in reform, with a real voice,” she added.

Race to the Top resistance

New York’s state legislature recently failed to pass a bill that would increase the state’s cap on charter schools from 200 to 460, but Gov. David Paterson earlier this month said he would try again in revisions to his proposed budget or as a separate bill.

The move would improve New York’s chances of getting $500 to $700 million in the Race to the Top competition, supporters say.

State union leaders opposed both the charter school bill and a separate proposal to link a teacher’s job evaluation to student performance.

The latter proposal, which failed to pass in December, would have revised state standardized tests so they more closely tracked student performance on national tests, linked a teacher’s job evaluation to student performance under the improved tests, and provided options to close the worst schools, fire the principal and half the teachers, and hire an outside management firm.

The proposal drew quick support from frequent critics of education policy in New York, but concern from the New York State United Teachers Union (NYSUT), a top lobbyist and campaign contributor with strong support in the legislature.

Maria Neira, vice president of the union, said NYSUT insists that the states’ standardized tests be improved and curriculums be aligned with the new tests’ standards before teachers accept student performance as a factor in teacher evaluations.

Neira also warned that the cap in charter schools shouldn’t be lifted until the charter school system is fully evaluated. She said new charter schools should only be allowed if there is no financial cost to the nearby traditional public school.

“Conceptually we have agreement in many of the areas, but we do have some concerns,” she said.

The California Teachers Association (CTA), which represents 340,000 public school teachers, has similar concerns about bills signed last month by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that would improve California’s chances for Race to the Top funding.

The laws give parents and school administrators new clout to make major changes in the lowest-performing schools–including converting them to charter schools and firing teachers.

The new laws also say teachers’ pay should be linked to their students’ test scores, a concept the unions have fought, saying teachers would be punished for working with students who have learning disabilities or speak little English.

But the laws don’t require linking teacher pay and student performance.

“What districts and the state education agencies ultimately do on teacher pay and teacher evaluation is going to be affected by local bargaining agreements,” said Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. “The reality is the union will be in a very strong position.”

The CTA is using its position to urge local chapters not to sign on in support of California’s application to the federal government for Race to the Top funds.

California’s share of the money could be up to $700 million–a small fraction of what the state spends annually on public schools, but a noteworthy sum in a tough budget year.

The bills California approved were a big step toward applying for the money. But the application asks states to show how many local teachers unions support the changes.

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Laura Ascione

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