Education reform part 2: teachers unions play nice … for now

In my first primer on the coming legislative battle over education reform, I said that we would have a better sense of how seriously the administration is taking education reform when the Department of Education released its finalized rules for the Race to the Top competition. Would the rules be watered down, or have real teeth? How would the teachers’ unions respond? What divisions would we see within the Democratic party?

We have some answers on that now, and it is looking more promising than ever for comprehensive education reform in 2010.

Final Race to the Top rules come out

The Administration created the Race to the Top fund when it passed the stimulus plan, earmarking $4.35 billion in discretionary funds for the Department of Education to disburse to those states that make the greatest strides in reforming their educational systems. It is the single largest pot of discretionary funds in the department’s history, and as we noted in the last installment, it has already set off a race by states to change their laws. For a good overview of state actions so far, see the New York Times article on the subject from Nov. 10.

The Administration has now finalized the criteria for awarding grants, after a long period for public commentary on the draft rules. According to today’s Times article, states will be graded according to the following point system:

A perfect application would earn a state 500 points, with 125 points allotted for articulating a perfectly coherent agenda for change; 70 points for adopting higher standards and higher quality tests; 47 points for developing computerized systems to track student academic progress; 138 points for recruiting quality teachers, evaluating their effectiveness, and using the evaluations in tenure and other key decisions; 50 points for turning around failing schools; 30 points for other miscellaneous categories of change; and 40 points for fostering the growth of charter schools.

The unions and other Democrats react

And how did key Democrats and the teachers unions respond to the finalized rules? With near unanimous support. This might be surprising to some, given the point system as outlined above. Of the 500 possible points, 345 are for policies teachers unions traditionally do not support, including 70 points for strengthening the testing regime, 47 points for data systems on student performance that will likely later be used to evaluate teacher performance, 138 points for improved recruitment  (implying that the current teaching force has much more room to improve) and more firing flexibility for administrators, 50 points for mass layoffs in failing schools, and 40 points for non-unionized charter schools.

Despite these policies that unions have not historically supported, the president of the American Federation of Teachers announced her support of the finalized RttT rules, saying “The administration worked very hard to find the right balance. This is not a ‘Kumbaya’ moment, but these rules suggest they won’t dictate from on high but will work together with teachers and their unions.” That is some high praise, after the way the unions scorned some of the draft rules back in the summer. Similarly, Democratic governor of North Carolina Bev Purdue had sent a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan back in the summer complaining about the administration’s single-minded focus on charter schools, but in reaction to today’s rules release, Gov. Purdue said, “I can see that Secretary Duncan listened to us, and that’s phenomenal. I’m really pleased.”

Why all the praise?

Why the change of heart? Was it because the draft rules really did change substantially to accommodate the unions and some skeptical politicians?

It doesn’t look like it. From the thin information available about the new rules, they don’t seem to be terribly different from the draft. And for the few things that were changed, they usually strengthened reforms that unions don’t like. NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein said that the draft rules were weak on school turnarounds, usually just requiring a half-way measure like replacing the principal. The new rules, according to Klein, are much tougher and often require entire staff turnovers or outright school closure – steps that unions are generally against.

Similarly, the unions’ claims that the new rules are less combative and work with unions as partners doesn’t seem to hold up to scrutiny. While the National Education Association said that the new rules de-emphasize the role of standardized testing  and instead “put more emphasis on student growth, teacher practice and improving instruction”, that doesn’t actually seem to be the case. Looking at the point system, there are a substantial number of points up for grab that basically revolve around making tests more rigorous,  tracking student performance, and using that performance data in hiring and firing decisions. Where exactly is the compromise the unions are talking about?

Elected officials are also getting on board the revised rules despite the fact that their concerns were not substantively addressed. Gov. Purdue is happy with the new rules because while they still “focus on charters as tools for school change”, states are not invited to “describe “’nnovative public schools other than charter schools’ operating in their local districts.” That’s right. Gov. Purdue’s support for the final rules seems to stem from her state being allowed to describe other innovations along with charter schools in her state’s application for funds, with no guarantee that those descriptions will materialize into more points. Charters are still the focus.

Keeping their powder dry?

So it looks like, in the words of the often anti-union Democrats for Education Reform, “The administration clearly listened to the unions, but they haven’t backtracked.”

And it worked. By listening to the unions’ and politicians’ concerns and offering cosmetic changes while retaining the rules’ bite, Arne Duncan seems to have won key stakeholders’ support without giving up much of anything.

It truly is amazing the extent to which the unions have gone along with these new rules without raising a fuss. Neither the American Federation of Teachers nor the National Education Association make the RttT rules front page news on their webpages, or anywhere else for that matter. Neither group takes an adversarial stance against the current administration’s education policy. Both, in fact, have large sections of their sites dedicated to promoting the president’s health care reform agenda.

I can think of only 4 possible explanations for the unions caving like they did today:

  1. Internal union reform has progressed to such a point where key union decision-makers are split over reforms related to testing, tenure, and charters. There certainly is a lot of regional variance in how teachers unions view these reforms, and perhaps those differences have now made their way to the top. I’m skeptical that this is the case, but perhaps it is.
  2. The President’s reform agenda remains an open question. Perhaps the unions cannot yet tell what direction Obama’s reform bill will take in the future. During the campaign, both he and Hillary cut a middle path between the educational establishment and the reformist camps of their party. Arne Duncan is firmly in the reform camp, but unions may still have uncertainties about which side Obama himself falls on. I find this to be very unlikely, given Obama’s clear pro-reform statements to date, and his reliance on Duncan.
  3. You can make more change on the inside than on the outside. In unions read the writing on the wall and see the reformist tilt of the president’s agenda, then perhaps they calculate that it is better to stay inside the tent and push for change behind closed doors than to leave the tent. They can then extract pro-union statements like this from Duncan while still pushing for more substantive changes in their members’ favor later on.
  4. Keeping their powder dry for the big fight. If unions realize they are not likely to extract many compromises from Duncan and the president during the present RttT negotiations, then unions may see it in their interest to hold their fire for the Big Show when education reform is tackled in Congress. By laying low now they can keep the administration thinking that they are still hanging out inside the tent, as in strategy 3 above. The unions dont’ have much leverage over the administration in the current discussion of RttT rules, because the money has already been appropriated and put at the secretary’s discretion. Unions know they will have far more power in the Congress, where they are major political donors to individual congressmen.

My personal suspicion is that current union behavior falls somewhere between strategy 3 and 4. That means that the real fireworks aren’t likely to become public until Congress starts debate. However, there is some reason to believe that there may never ben severe public disagreement between the unions, union-friendly politicians, and the president. As we saw in the current health care debate, the administration was able to keep industry stake-holders within the tent with the argument that reform is going to happen one way or the other, and it’s in their best interest not to be an obstacle. That was a credible threat with health care. The issue now is whether the unions think they have enough power in the Congress to stop any ambitious educational reform on their own, or whether it really will be in their interest to go along with the inevitable reforms?




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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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