Union Comfort Would Be Evidence of Danger
My main argument against looking toward centralized levers — whether in Providence or Washington — to reform education has essentially been that national teachers’ unions are better situated to manipulate higher tiers of government than are concerned residents acting through democratic processes. Within the scope of town politics, an active group can have some hope of countering union propaganda, legal, and bullying tactics — not the least by changing the composition of elected bodies. At the state level, the excess funding that the union system creates for activist administration and lobbying will be of greater value.
That’s not to deny that voters and a handful of forward-looking government officials could throw an important curve into the game, before the unions adjust their focus to those officials’ offices. That possibility is perhaps what evoked union concern about RI Education Commissioner Deborah Gist’s application for federal Race to the Top funding, and its absence is what ought to concern voters about the shift in tone for the second round of competition for those dollars. It’s now clear that union support was critical for the causes of the two states that won initial funding, and that support will require that unions have an advantage in the centralization process:
During frank discussions, several speakers said fear and a sense of alienation kept most of the state’s teachers union locals from supporting the first application. Of particular concern was a pledge to make student test scores and other evidence of student growth count for more than half of a teacher’s evaluation. But the application was vague about exactly what factors would be used to assess a teacher’s performance.
“There was a tremendous sense of fear,” said Mike Crowley, president of the Rhode Island School Committees Association. “There was fear not knowing what this evaluation will look like. I think [teachers] want to come to the table, and we, as school committees and superintendents, also need to understand it, since we will be expected to carry it out.”
The only way toward substantial reform is from the bottom up. Town residents must insist on evaluations that take student achievement into consideration, implemented by accountable administrators with the authority to make substantive changes. State and federal strategies that have any hope of winning union support will only tie the hands of local school administrations.