Teacher Unions Balking at Race to the Top
As the state races toward a January deadline to apply for a chunk of federal grant money, the state's teachers union is balking at the proposal, which could ultimately jeopardize the department's chance to win up to $700 million from the Obama administration.
The Florida Education Association said Thursday that a memorandum that union presidents are asked to sign supporting the state's application is “fatally flawed” and have asked individual school district unions not to support it.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the $4.35 billion competitive grant program, Race to the Top, earlier this year, flanked by Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith and Hillsborough Union President Jean Clements. The grant, the largest discretionary pot of money a U.S. Secretary of Education has ever had access to, is meant to improve teacher quality and help struggling schools throughout the country.
But the details are tripping up many school districts, and some officials are hesitant to sign on, fearing potential problems.
The state application process involves getting the signatures of the school district superintendent, the school district school board president, and the school district union president on a Memorandum of Understanding, which generally outlines the department's application. The MOU does not contractually obligate a school to participate in the program or take the grant money, but to actively negotiate with the department.
Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the FEA, said so far, he knows of no union that will sign the document because it will cede too much power from the local school districts to the state. And, he said, it will create a lot of expensive changes at individual schools that won't necessarily be backed up by state dollars when the federal pot runs dry.
Sensitive issues such as tenure and salaries are also a part of the discussion.
FEA President Andy Ford wrote an open letter to Smith in Thursday's Tallahassee Democrat saying that the dollars would not have “the desired impact” under the department's current proposal and that the department intended to implement reforms unilaterally.
“Educators understand that the transformative path is riddled with potholes, but we fully expected to participate in the process rather than have that process dictated from Tallahassee,” Ford wrote.
Florida education officials have estimated that the state could receive anywhere from $350 million to $700 million if Duncan approves the state's application, putting extra money toward Florida's schools, which have seen funding cuts over the last few years.
The grant money would last for about four years and could mean more money for teacher salaries. But whether the state could then uphold the level of funding needed for the changes created by the grant money is unknown.
Wayne Blanton, director of the Florida Association of School Boards, said he is encouraging the school boards to at least stay at the table to have the discussion, and said the union rejection was “a bit premature.”
The state's superintendents, however, are also struggling with many of the same issues as the FEA, said Florida Association of District School Superintendents executive director Bill Montford. The association, he said, is not directing superintendents to sign or reject it, but rather to take a very serious look at the document.
Montford said the superintendents have been working “feverishly” with their staffs and the unions to see if they can support the MOU because of the “desperate need for money.”
Lack of support from any of the three groups could potentially jeopardize the state's application at the federal level, though. The grant applications are graded on a point basis, and the state would receive a certain number of points depending on how many signatures from superintendents, school board chiefs and union presidents the state can come up with.
“Ideally you would have all three groups holding hands singing Kum Ba Yah, but the fact that one or two may not be there, sure that will hurt our chances,” Montford said.
Lawmakers have also been wading into the process, talking with the three parties.
Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, who is a teacher, said he empathizes with the unions and said the money, which initially seemed like a great idea, now seems to come with too many conditions. The time line for the application was another challenge, he said.
The final guidelines were released in mid-November, and the application deadline is Jan. 19.
“Trying to do a sort of rapid implementation of education overhaul is tremendously difficult,” he said.
Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie, who is the point man for the House Democrats on the education budget committee, said the state cannot afford to lose out on the money though, and planned on speaking with school district officials in Broward, he said.
Kiar said the union may have legitimate concerns about several education issues, but that the state desperately needs the money and that union presidents, superintendents and school board presidents should sign the MOU.
“My personal opinion is by them not signing it is like cutting off your nose to spite your face,” he said.
The Florida Department of Education released a letter late Thursday afternoon that Commissioner Smith sent to Ford, the FEA President, saying he was disappointed that the FEA had chosen to recommend to local unions that they reject the memorandum.
“If Florida is to achieve its educational goals, we must implement the right reforms,” Smith wrote. “Florida's education goals must benefit our entire population: student, parent, educator and citizen. Educational reform cannot be achieved by a single entity or agenda. It is through collaboration and common ground that we must embrace this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”