Society and Culture, Education

Unions, Partisanship, and the Race to the Top

classroomWhen Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the first-round winners of the Race to the Top (Delaware and Tennessee), some immediately charged that politics had played a part in the selection process. Some said the awards were made to help bolster the administration’s increasingly endangered electoral prospects. Both winning states have Democratic governors, and both have important 2010 statewide elections for seats currently held by Democrats but at risk of going red. Moreover, three states long considered Race to the Top front-runners that didn’t win (Florida, Louisiana, and Rhode Island) have GOP governors.

Others charged that the awards were made to boost the chances of the administration’s blueprint for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the federal government’s major K-12 education law). Two Republicans key to the plan’s success, Senator Lamar Alexander and Congressman Mike Castle, call Tennessee and Delaware home, respectively.

So partisan politics determined the outcome, right? I have a different take on the situation. I think politics did play a role, but a subtler and more interesting one than held in the conventional wisdom.

As I wrote on Monday, the awards made clear that “stakeholder support” was important (though not everything). That is, states were rewarded for crafting plans that state education stakeholders, including teacher’s unions, would support.

A couple months back, I posited a theory that application strength and stakeholder support would be inversely related, meaning no state could do well on both scores. But it appears that Delaware and Tennessee were able to slightly complicate the formula in my theory of everything. Both had unanimous stakeholder support levels while still submitting relatively robust plans.

So how did they pull this off? It appears that each state’s Democratic leadership was key. In both cases, the unions came to the negotiating table, conceded several important points, and ultimately embraced the plan. As Tennessee’s governor noted, “I was able to get the T.E.A. [Tennessee Education Association] to accept some things that probably a Republican wouldn’t have gotten done.”

And during the state’s presentation to the Department of Education, Delaware’s teacher’s union president actually presented the most controversial and laudable part of the state’s plan, the section related to reforming the teaching profession.

In Florida, on the other hand, only 8 percent of the state’s unions signed on to the state application. In Rhode Island, it was only 4 percent. And in both states, many union leaders not only withheld their support, they also actively and publicly opposed the states’ plans.

It remains an open question, however, which side is to blame for the delta between GOP state leaders and teacher’s unions. Maybe GOP leaders could do a better job of outreach. Or maybe the unions are only willing to play ball with officials who have a parenthetical “D” behind their names.

But two facts remain: stakeholder support is important and at least two states were able to pair it with a meaningful reform plan. Keep an eye on this issue as the second and final round of the Race to the Top heats up: Can GOP leaders and unions come to agreement in any state?

Image by jenlight.

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