Are unions blocking school reform?

“It’s not going to be helpful if we have minimal union support, and we could end up losing Race to the Top because of that issue,” Rick Miller, the state’s deputy superintendent, said in a phone call with school district administrators.

CTA President David Sanchez said he’s urging local union chapters not to sign memorandums of understanding on Race to the Top because the state hasn’t provided enough detail on what its application will say.

“It’s crazy for them to think that we were going to go out on a limb and sign something off without knowing what the final product is going to look like,” Sanchez said.

Miller disagrees. He said the state has made public all the information teachers should need to sign on.

Even if the unions stop California from getting the federal funds, the state’s new laws on overhauling low-performing schools remain in effect.

In December, United Teachers of Los Angeles sued the Los Angeles Unified School District over a plan to allow a new campus to be run as a charter school. The suit maintained that the district violated state law by not allowing teachers to vote on whether a school built to relieve crowding at a chronically overcrowded high school should be a charter. The new school is among 24 set to open in September, and school officials have proposed handing the new schools over to charter operators.

Union support for reform

Despite opposition in states such as New York and California, many state union chapters support Race to the Top efforts.

On Jan. 18, the Rhode Island American Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, one of the two statewide teachers unions, and the Providence Teachers Union, announced their support for the state’s proposal.

Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri said his state’s Race to the Top application will reflect the state’s commitment to education reform, student achievement, expanding charter schools, and educator excellence.

The state’s application included plans to develop a model to measure and use student growth as the primary component in determining teacher and principal effectiveness, and using evaluations to improve professional development opportunities and create incentives for highly effective educators, as well as using evaluations to provide information to support decisions on educators’ renewal, tenure, and dismissal.

Thirty-three of 36 school districts, and all charter schools and state-operated schools, signed on as participating districts.

Fifty-nine of Florida’s 67 school districts committed to that state’s Race to the Top application, and five local teacher unions–representing Duval, Hamilton, Hillsborough, Jefferson, and Sarasota counties–signed a memorandum expressing their intent to work with local education leaders to improve teaching and learning.

Eric J. Smith, Florida’s education commissioner, said he hoped that if Florida wins Race to the Top funds, more local unions will sign on.

The NEA Foundation received a $358,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation create the Institute for Local Innovation in Teaching and Learning, which will help stimulate collaboration and reform between education unions and their school districts.

The three-year process will focus on changes in collective bargaining agreements and new methods for measuring student learning.

NEA Foundation representatives said they hope the institute’s model will become a replicable process.

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Laura Ascione

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