Can NJ Win Race to the Top Without Support of Teachers Union?

Bold reform or union backing or both: Is there a formula for finishing in the money for Race to the Top?

Massachusetts made a last-minute decision to apply for Race to the Top money with only mixed support from its teachers unions. California filed its application despite the opposition of its largest local union, the one representing Los Angeles teachers.

But after Minnesota couldn’t get its teachers unions to buy into its bid, it decided not to apply at all. The same decision came in Indiana.

“Without support from the union that represents more than 90 percent of Indiana’s school districts, our application will not be competitively positioned,” said Indiana’s schools superintendent, Tony Bennett.

Then there’s New Jersey.

Gov. Chris Christie took his own tack this week. In a stunning turn, Christie announced he would reject a compromise his own education commissioner, Bret Schundler, struck with the teachers union to gain its support, and defiantly said he would file the application without it.

New Jersey in the Minority

In doing so, Christie appears to have left New Jersey in the clear minority among the 35 states that applied for the second round of awards by Tuesday’s deadline. But whether and how much that matters is clearly up for debate, with the first round of the contest offering a few clues but little certainty for the next.

“For states applying this time, the union buy-in seems much more critical, certainly more than anyone anticipated before the first round,” said Michael Griffith, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based clearinghouse.

“A vast majority of states have substantial buy-in this time,” he said. “States really made an effort around that.”

Others point out that of the 16 finalists last time, five had less than half of their unions on board, including Florida and Illinois, which came in fourth and fifth, respectively. Both states have since gained far more union support, but how much it means is hard to predict.

“There’s still a wide variability,” said Charles Barone, director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform, a Washington, D.C think-tank that has closely tracked the applications.

“A lot more have seen union buy-ins this time, because they realize the states would apply, anyway,” he said. “But it still comes down to if you don’t have robust reforms, you won’t get high scores.”

The Governor’s Argument

That has been Christie’s argument. He has repeatedly said that the reforms he is seeking, including new rules on teacher tenure, seniority and merit pay, go beyond whether the state gets the federal money. The state has applied for $399 million, the top end of the range it would be eligible for.

Schundler, Christie’s education commissioner, took the same line yesterday in his first comments since the application was filed.

Schundler himself had to do an about-face after he negotiated a compromise with the New Jersey Education Association that would have left tenure reform off the table, only to have Christie publicly reject the deal and slap at his commissioner in the process.

Before a throng of reporters, Schundler yesterday acknowledged an “error” in reaching a deal last week without the governor’s say-so, but said the application would not be hurt for lack of union support.

“I don’t think the application will be compromised at all,” he said. “Whether or not there will be more points for bolder reforms or more points for union support that is something we never knew ourselves. That is kind of a guess.”

“What I will say is that for the governor all along, the key issue has been that these principles are important,” he said. “Everything we’re pursuing we would be pursuing were there not the contest. While the money would be helpful, it is not the driving factor.”

Making Good on Promises

Still, to get that money or even be in the running, it may come down as much to not just whether a state has union support or not, but whether it can convince the reviewers that the state can implement the reforms it promises.

The union support matters in that calculation, especially one as politically strong as the NJEA, but so do other stakeholders and political leaders. In the last round, each of the 16 finalists not only were subjected to in-person interviews about their applications, but also needed to bring a half-dozen of those stakeholders to the interview to ensure they were in support as well.

“These applications are simply proposals,” said Griffith, of the Education Commission of the States. “If they make it to the finalists, they will ask these people whether these proposals will actually pass.”

And Barone of the Democrats for Education Reform said that might pose a deeper challenge for Christie as he seeks to bring these changes to New Jersey, with or without the union’s support.

“Compared to other states, it’s hard to sense there is a real agenda yet for Christie, or that people have been really brought along,” he said. “And after being all over the place in the last week, I’m not sure how they will make that case.”