Florida's surprising failure on Monday to win an initial Race to the Top education grant should send a signal to Gov. Charlie Crist and the Florida Legislature: For reform to succeed, it's important to work as partners with the teachers who would carry it out. Unfortunately, the Legislature is headed in the other direction.
Delaware and Tennessee, Monday's two winners, put together applications that had substantial backing from the teachers and their unions. Florida's application, in contrast, had support from only 59 of 67 school districts and just five teacher unions and scrambled until the last minute to get that. There is enough blame to go around, from the state Department of Education's demand for a quick response to the unions' intransigence.
Florida, which finished fourth in the competition, can reapply in June for the huge grant it was seeking — though new federal rules will cap its request at $700 million instead of the $1 billion it sought. It should follow through, because there's too much money on the table to ignore, and the overall goals of Race to the Top are in line with Florida's. But first legislators should take stock of the path to reform and question why the state failed in its initial bid. While many of the reforms the Legislature are considering have merit, the bill approved by the Senate last week that creates merit pay based on student performance and abolishes tenure (SB 6) is more about punishment than reward.
To win federal money and to be successful at real education reform in the long run, the Crist administration and state legislators have to work more in collaboration with teachers — and their unions.
The Hillsborough School District, with the impetus of its $100 million Gates Foundation grant, is doing it right. It is moving audaciously and methodically toward reforms in how to evaluate and pay teachers and how to measure students' success, with teachers intimately involved in the process. In Hillsborough, there is trust. In Tallahassee, there is anger and suspicion.
To put Monday's disappointment all on the Crist administration and the Legislature would not be fair, either. Too often, union leaders are unwilling to compromise, and teachers are unwilling to accept that more change is coming. The showdown in Tallahassee reconfirms that teacher unions are not the political force they once were, and the Republican-controlled Legislature is in no mood to reach out to groups that offer only criticism.
Federal education officials set four clear priorities in assessing states' applications:
• Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and careers;
• Creating systems to track student growth;
• Hiring and retaining the best teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and
• Turning around the lowest-performing schools.
While Florida is moving forward on the first two priorities, its record on the last two is spotty at best. The Department of Education and the Legislature need to reach out to teachers for their help in crafting a better system for performance review and pay. The teacher unions need to reach out to education officials and state lawmakers and be willing to compromise. Otherwise, the Republican legislative leaders are going to do what they want and Florida can forget about Race to the Top money as it sinks to the bottom.