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Teachers' unions balk at Florida's bid for federal education reform money

Florida is suddenly in danger of stumbling in its quest for a share of $4.5 billion in federal education money aimed at school reform.

Teachers union officials on Thursday called the state's bid "fatally flawed" and said there isn't a local union that can support it.

That could mean trouble for Florida, which stands to lose up to $700 million in federal Race to the Top funds to improve teacher evaluations, tie teacher pay to student performance and turn around struggling schools. Union partnerships are a requirement, as many of the reforms need contract negotiations.

Florida education commissioner Eric J. Smith expressed regret over the unions' stance, and the conservative Foundation for Florida's Future said it showed they were "willing to play union politics at the expense of teachers and students."

But even the reform-minded Hillsborough County teachers union says it couldn't support Florida's plan as written. That union supported a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the Hillsborough school district that will do many of the same things, though over a seven-year period.

"They're holding Hillsborough up as a model for this particular application," said union president Jean Clements. "But if I'm reading this document correctly, I could not sign it as it reads right now."

Experts have hailed the federal Race to the Top effort as a game-changing plan to transform public education. Rather than imposing changes, it offers stimulus money to states and districts that support what U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has described as proven reforms.

The problem for Florida unions lies in a memo sent out last week by the state Department of Education. It asks districts and unions to agree to pursue a full slate of changes and return a signed copy by Jan. 12.

Unions in Hillsborough and other counties have voiced support for many of those ideas. But none are prepared to change so quickly, said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association.

"What may work in Hillsborough may not work in Putnam or Dade County," he said. "But the (state) Department of Education is saying if you want a crack at this money, this is the approach you will take."

Florida had been described as a front-runner in the competition. But in its zeal to earn a high score in the points-based race for federal money, the state may have pushed districts and unions harder than the federal government intended.

"It does seem like perhaps they overshot it, or they overestimated the political will in the state," said Jennifer Cohen, a policy analyst with the New America Foundation in Washington.

"I don't want to say it will be the nail in the coffin," she added. "But I do think it will be a strong signal to the Education Department that Florida is going to have a lot of obstacles in implementing their plan."

In application guidelines, the federal government suggests that states offer districts a choice of reforms they'd like to try. But Florida's application offers no such options.

Marshall Ogletree, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said his union supported Race to the Top. It wanted to focus on four struggling high schools and the schools that feed into them, using things like performance pay and longer school days.

"I thought we were going to have the ability, with some of this money, to target it and make some dramatic changes," he said. "But there's not enough money" to do those things in every school.

Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who supports the plan, said unions may have misinterpreted the wording of the state's document. Signing it only demonstrates a commitment to discuss such changes, she said.

"And the (state) Department of Education has to work hard, particularly with those districts that haven't had the same opportunity that we have had," Elia said, referring to her district's work on similar issues with the Gates Foundation.

But Clements, the union president, said changes are needed.

"I can work this out with the district, but unions around the state are not going to be able to sign that document the way it reads," she said. "Whoever put the words on paper left the flexibility out."

State Department of Education officials told the St. Petersburg Times they felt it would be ineffective to pursue only portions of the reforms called for by the federal government.

"However, we have worked hard to incorporate optimum latitude and flexibility for school districts throughout the state, so they can respond to the needs of their district," said spokesman Tom Butler.

Pudlow, the state union spokesman, hopes the state modifies its plan to attract more support.

"There is still time to rescue this," he said. "I think we just need to have both sides figure out a way to make this work."

Staff writers Ron Matus and Jeffrey Solochek contributed to this report.

Teachers' unions balk at Florida's bid for federal education reform money 12/17/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 17, 2009 11:22pm]
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