Policy and Politics Mark Race to the Top Accord

(From New Jersey Spotlight, May 28, 2010)

By JOHN MOONEY

In the end, it was an agreement notable for both its policy and its politics.

After two weeks of negotiations, the New Jersey Education Association yesterday afternoon emailed state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler a letter supporting his bid for federal Race to the Top money, a contentious proposal of reforms in teacher and school accountability.

Although the actual application has not yet been released, compromises appeared to come on both sides, with the union agreeing to new and fundamental changes in how teachers are evaluated and the Christie administration leaving tenure laws mostly intact.

But with only a small handful of states seeing teacher unions support such applications, most of the talking yesterday was left to the NJEA–notable for an administration that has often been in combat with the teachers union through Gov. Chris Christie’s first few months.

‘Win-Win’

“We were just on the phone with them, and I think both sides described it as definitely a win-win,” said Dawn Hiltner, a NJEA spokeswoman who was in on the negotiations.

“It’s a collective victory, and hopefully a turning point on our relationship,” she said.

Christie’s office deferred comment to Schundler, who released a statement welcoming the union’s buy-in, along with that of others.

“We are extremely pleased that the 200,000-member NJEA has agreed to endorse our application and its bold reform agenda designed to improve education in New Jersey,” it read.

With applications due next Tuesday, the NJEA’s support was considered a critical keystone in a bid that could bring the cash-starved state an additional $400 million in federal aid.

It clears the way for local unions to sign onto the application, which gets big points for support from all the stakeholders. As of yesterday, 430 local districts have agreed to support the bid, but few had union support.

There were several key components agreed to in the latest agreement, according to the teachers union and others.

The Equity Pool

One was a new pool of so-called “equity bonuses” for qualified teachers in suburban districts to work in low-income and low-performing schools, amounting to up $7,500 a year.

Separately, the two sides agreed to a new statewide system for bonuses to individual schools and teachers for strong performance, historically an anathema to the NJEA but still with some concessions from Schundler as well.

Half of the money would go only to school-wide bonuses, a union demand, while the other half would be distributed on a pilot basis to selected districts to use as they see fit, including the possibility of individual teacher bonuses. And even there, it would require at least half of a school’s staff to agree.

“It would all be voluntary,” said Hiltner of the NJEA. “It could be used for bonuses for themselves, or if they want it to be used for new books for library or something for the building as a whole, that would be fine, too.”

Student and Teacher Performance

Still, a fundamental shift came in how all teachers–as well as principals and supervisors–are evaluated, with student performance for the first time an explicit and significant factor in the evaluations.

The proposal calls for 50 percent of an educator’s evaluation to be decided by “multiple measures of student learning,” including test scores, according to the union.

Still, much will rest on the details of what those measures are, with the proposal calling for a committee of stakeholders to devise the statewide evaluation system.

Groups championing major reforms in the state said they were watching closely in how this teacher evaluation piece settles out.

‘Whether that is watered down is a big concern,” said Kathleen Nugent, state director for Democrats for Education Reform. “But we’re guardedly optimistic.”

Still, the state’s tenure laws that provide teachers and supervisors with lifetime job protections would remain in place, and so would seniority rights for educators, according to the union.

Any change in those would have required statutory approval by the legislature, likely bringing their own drawn-out and potentially divisive debates.

“I think this is a better application with more sound practices than when we first started,” Hiltner said. “And an application with a better shot of securing the grant.”