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Race to Top Side Deals: An Alarming Trend?

My colleague Lesli Maxwell highlighted over at State EdWatch a disturbing trend in Florida, where some districts and their local teachers' unions are signing side deals that seem to fly in the face of the spirit of the Race to the Top competition.

Intrepid St. Pete Times reporter Ron Matus first wrote about the issue here, and has since uncovered more side deals. UPDATE: Blogger Sherman Dorn writes this is much ado about nothing—that the MOUs districts signed and these side deals are really quite similar.

Florida improved its round two application by getting 54 local unions on board (versus five in the first application.) Apparently, many of those signatures were given with a wink, wink.

Florida law requires districts to bargain wages and other factors affecting teachers. So its MOU says that to receive grant funds, districts and unions agree to bargain in good faith and that a failure to negotiate ALL the terms will mean the districts lose their grant money. But language in these side deals, at least the one in Hernando County, says: "The parties further agree that said signature does not constitute agreement to modify the existing [contract] or to negotiate additional language consistent with all elements of the [Florida Department of Education] Preliminary Scope of Work."

And another disturbing thing is that these side deals also say that any changes successfully negotiated because of Race to the Top will expire once the funding does. This is important because Florida is requiring districts to successfully negotiate all parts of the state's Race to the Top plan in order to get any money from the grant. This escape clause essentially allows the district and union to "negotiate" to meet the Race to the Top requirements with the full knowledge that they'll only be subject to any changes for a maximum of four years, or the length of the grant. It seems many of Florida's districts and unions have little to no intention of making these lasting changes in their education systems.

Of course, the peer reviewers who are judging this contest won't see the content of these side deals in the state's application, although anyone can read Hernando County's here and Broward County's here. Certainly, the peer reviewers aren't supposed to use any outside information to help them score the applications.

These side deals raise two big questions in my mind: Is this just a Florida phenomenon, or have districts and unions in other states figured out how to create similar escape valves? Please weigh in below, in the comments section, and let me know.

And secondly, can, will, or should the Department of Education do anything about this? Justin Hamilton, a spokesman, told me today that Race to the Top money "is distributed in phases, tied to milestones. If they divert unacceptably from the plan, we can stop funding it." Of course, once the grant money runs out, any leverage the department has also would seem to run out.

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