Potholes in N.J.’s Race To The Top Track

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Democrats for Education Reform has just put out a list of states that recognize the opportunities for children and schools in the Race to the Top competition and have stepped up to the starting line. New Jersey is conspicuously absent and for good reason: we’ve yet to produce anything like the comprehensive packages from proactive states stipulating commitments from local districts and union leaders on front-burner reforms like improved data systems, expansion of charter schools, and linking teacher evaluation and compensation to performance.

Last we heard, the N.J. DOE was playing hucky sack with our RTTT application, with both Corzine and Christie denying responsibility for our shot at receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants to reform our school system. Meanwhile, other states are proceeding with what DFER calls “stunning…edu-political reform.”

Let’s look at one RTTT requirements: the lack of legal, statutory, or regulatory barriers that interfere with linking teacher performance to student achievement. Florida is on DFER’s list and its RTTT application just went public (hat tip to Eduwonk). Local districts and union leaders who want to share in Florida’s potential grant funding have to agree to “utilize the Department-selected teacher-level student growth measure as the primary factor of the teacher and principal evaluation system.” Here’s another item on Florida’s application:

D. COLLECTIVE BARGAINING RESPONSIBILITIES: The parties bargaining agreement will use their best efforts to negotiate any terms agreement necessary for the full implementation of the State Plan. The failure to negotiate any term or condition in a collective bargaining agreement implementation of the State Plan will result in termination of the grant.

In other words, local units of the Florida Education Association have to negotiate agreements that support RTTT goals. Try something else and the district loses its grant money. Union leaders aren’t celebrating (see this Orlando Sentinel piece for sentiment) but momentum is building, DFER regards their chances as good, and Florida may well end up with hefty amounts of federal grants to support reform.

And where is New Jersey? Local school boards are twiddling their thumbs waiting on the DOE, but the NJEA leadership is preparing for fisticuffs. Here’s a section from its update to members on recent federal activity on reauthorization of ESEA/NCLB, which will most likely be aligned with RTTT goals:

Critical to our concerns was…draft language calling for “pay for performance” tied to student test scores and contravening any collective bargaining rights for local affiliates…We asked them to slow down consideration of the bill and stop any action on “pay for performance/merit pay initiatives. Our effort was successful.

And Corzine’s appointees on the N.J. State Board of Education are falling in line. NJEA reports that its Executive Committee just met with five members of the State BOE. When one bold member asserted the need to reward good teachers, fellow BOE member Edie Fulton (coincidentally a former head of NJEA), instructed,“Research shows that merit pay doesn’t exist in the private sector as much as people think.”

Another NJ Board of Ed member, Ron Butcher, was all reassurance: “Butcher added that he felt the board needed to have a conversation about merit pay, but noted that “we may find out after the discussion that we don’t want to go there.” He assured the audience that he would never vote for merit pay based on student test scores.”

Our current long odds for capturing some of the RTTT purse is not just the fault of NJEA: line up also the timorous NJ DOE, home rule-happy local school boards loathe to cede control, and difficulties inherent in corralling 600 school districts into some sort of consensus. But until the executives at NJEA are willing to sign onto something resembling Florida’s commitment, including assimilating RTTT goals into collective bargaining agreements, N.J.’s struggling schoolchildren and teachers will sacrifice hundreds of millions of dollars in the name of old-school resistance to educational reform.

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