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Unions, States Clash in Race to Top

Arne Duncan loves this article. Want proof? It was put up on Twitter by the Official twitter account for Department of Education Press Secretaries Justin Hamilton & Sandra Abrevaya. They follow 28 people: Interesting list.

Mr. Duncan said in an interview that he welcomed the friction between union and state officials.

Not surprising, reader comments to this article are viciously anti-union.

By Neil King Jr. & Stephanie Banchero

The Obama administration's signature education initiative has incited tense showdowns in states across the country as unions and state officials feud over strategies to compete for $3.4 billion in federal funding.

The skirmishes come as states jockey for cash under the administration's Race to the Top program, which seeks to reward states that are pushing to overhaul their education systems.

Mr. Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visit a Falls Church, Va., school last year.

Applications for the second round are due by June 1, with winners to be chosen in September. Of the 40 states that submitted applications in the first round, only 16 were picked as finalists.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan ramped up pressure on the unions last month when he cited the advantage of union cooperation in picking just two states—Delaware and Tennessee—as winners in the competition's first round. Those states will share $600 million.

Since the first winners were picked, spats have erupted from Florida to Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota and Colorado over demands that unions agree to proposals on merit pay and teacher evaluation to strengthen the state's chances of winning federal money.

Mr. Duncan said in an interview that he welcomed the friction between union and state officials but warned against states weakening their overhaul plans simply to win buy-ins from unions. "Watered-down proposals with lots of consensus won't win," he said. "And proposals that drive real reform will win."

The Race to the Top program, a centerpiece of Mr. Duncan's push to promote innovation, aims to reward states that are promoting charter schools, tying teacher pay to student performance and implementing systems to track students' progress.

In some states, the atmosphere has grown toxic. Indiana's state school superintendent, Tony Bennett, blamed union obstruction on Thursday for his decision drop out of the federal competition.

The two sides had been snipping at each other for weeks. Earlier this month, Mr. Bennett sent a letter to union leaders, insisting they agree to tie teacher tenure decisions to student test scores. Labor leaders refused, saying they wouldn't support an overhaul they didn't help craft. Mr. Bennett challenged the union leaders to a public summit, and when the largest teacher's union declined, he pulled the plug on the application.

Union leaders said Mr. Bennett was making them a scapegoat for unpopular changes he hasn't been able to implement. "He's been disingenuous and demeaning," said Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. "We are willing to discuss meaningful reforms, but we won't participate in a circus."

A similar tussle has broken out in Minnesota, where Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty has criticized the state teachers' union as obstructionist and challenged the legislature to pass an overhaul package that would change how teachers are licensed and given tenure.

Minnesota's original Race to the Top application was rejected by the state teachers' union, Education Minnesota, and endorsed by only a few local teacher unions. "Our governor takes every chance he can to take shots at the teachers and the teachers unions," said Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota. "So there is very low trust in what he is doing."

Instead of overhauling teacher tenure and pay, the Minnesota union wants the state's application to focus heavily on ways to address the state's achievement gap, primarily by increasing programs and teaching hours at the state's worst-performing schools.

"The job of the teachers' union is to protect the union members, but the main role they are playing now is as the primary obstacle to passing any sort of reform," said Brian McClung, Mr. Pawlenty's deputy chief of staff.

In Colorado, the schism is more surprising because the teachers' unions and education leaders worked in tandem to draft the first Race to the Top application. The goodwill broke down this month when the state schools chief, Dwight Jones, wrote an op-ed in the Denver Post arguing the state couldn't win the competition without passage of a controversial bill to overhaul teacher tenure.

The head of the Colorado Education Association, the state teachers' union, which opposes the legislation, charged that Mr. Jones threw teachers "under the bus" and withdrew support for the federal application.

Mr. Jones acknowledged that he took a calculated risk by penning the op-ed. Support from statewide union officials is important to winning, he said, but it's not the only way to prevail. "Our being successful will be determined far more by the actions this state takes to improve student achievement," said Mr. Jones, who still holds out hope union officials will change their minds.

Mr. Jones's sentiments are borne out by an analysis of Race to the Top scoring, which awarded more points for bold teacher reforms than for union support. Most of the 16 state finalists lost far more points on reform efforts than on a lack of union backing. Florida and Illinois had among the weakest union support but still placed fourth and fifth.

At least one state has resorted to offering cash in exchange for signatures. Ohio education officials said recently they would guarantee a minimum level of funding to districts whose local officials and unions support the application. Connecticut education leaders are considering a similar guarantee.

— Neil King Jr. & Stephanie Banchero
Wall Street Journal


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