Unions Versus School Reform: Race to the Top Edition

Today the Obama Administration announced Delaware and Tennessee as the two winners of round one of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTTT) competitive education grant program. The Obama Administration should be commended for picking only two states. Limiting the number of winners shows the administration is serious and will not water down the funding over multiple applicants. However, the Obama Administration picked the wrong two states. Louisiana and Florida were rated as favorites to win the first round of Race to the Top based on the strongest applications. Yet, Louisiana and Florida did not have strong union support for the state’s RTTT proposals. Delaware and Tennessee had solid enough proposals and they also had support from unions and other education stakeholders. As the Wall Street Journal reports:

The administration appeared to put a very high value on applications that had won wide support from unions and school boards within their states. Florida’s bid, for instance, received the support of just 8% of its unions.

The implications of this choice for the Obama Administration moving forward are significant. As a much larger percentage of the federal education budget is moved into competitive grants, will the Obama administration ever choose the boldest proposals that do not have the support of the unions? Imagine if New Orleans school operators had to get the support of the unions before moving forward after Hurricane Katrina. It is doubtful that New Orleans would have seen the huge gains in student achievement under a prerequisite of union agreement. Education turnarounds seem unlikely if all the stakeholders must agree as a precondition. This competition would seem more serious if it supported the boldest reformers rather than the states that can get the stakeholders to sign on. This gives the unions a huge amount of political power to weaken state proposals for education reform. As Andy Smarick contemplates at the Fordham Foundation’s Flypaper:

First, Florida, Louisiana, and Rhode Island now have to wonder, “What reforms do we give up in order to get our stakeholders to support the plan? Do we lighten up on teacher evaluations? Do we give up performance pay? Do we take it easier on failing schools.”

Second, and related, in other states, unions and districts may conclude that they have a veto over their states’ proposals. If a state adds an element with which they disagree, these organizations can simply say, “Unless you change that provision, we won’t sign on and you won’t win.”

When it comes to bold education reform, the status quo still wins.