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Why Tony Bennett Is a Stud

Even as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan shills for Senator Tom Harkin's pander-ific, NEA-endorsed $23 billion "Keep Our Educators Working Act of 2010," the costs of his earlier efforts to curry NEA support are accumulating. His support for Harkin's no-strings-attached cash shower is trivializing the relatively puny $3.4 billion he's got left to dole out in round two of Race to the Top (RTT). Meanwhile, there is growing evidence that his earlier efforts to cultivate union support by spotlighting his commitment to buy-in have emboldened state and local unions.

On Wednesday, the Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA) declined state superintendent Tony Bennett's invitation to continue discussing components of the state's RTT application. In response, Bennett issued a terse but profoundly gutsy statement, saying that Indiana was abandoning its pursuit of round two RTT funding. Pulling no punches, he announced that ISTA "is unwilling to join me for an open and transparent discussion regarding union support for vital components of Indiana's Race to the Top application. Without support from the union that represents more than 90 percent of Indiana's school districts, our application will not be competitively positioned. Therefore, Indiana will not apply for Phase 2 funding. Instead, just as today's students have no time to waste, IDOE will waste no time as we continue our efforts to implement Indiana's Fast Forward plan without the federal funding."

Duncan may claim that buy-in is only one element in comprehensive applications and that his earlier remarks about the import of union buy-in have been misinerpreted. That may be. But if relentless, reform-minded leaders like Bennett are deciding to forego RTT rather than move forward in the absence of union support, the reality is that unions are sitting in the driver's seat.

And that's not the only place they're sitting. In Minnesota, the state legislature was pressed to adopt a new law prohibiting lobbyists from sitting with lawmakers during a committee hearing after the decision to allow the head of the statewide teacher union to do so provoked an uproar. The triggering event was a meeting on Tuesday at which lawmakers discussed reforms intended to bolster Minnesota's RTT application with Tom Dooher, president of the statewide union Education Minnesota, sitting alongside.

Making clear just how deeply the "buy-in" mentality has taken hold, K-12 Education Finance Division chair Mindy Greiling explained that Education Minnesota was the one group that needed to be at the table, given that Minnesota lost points in round one due to lack of union buy-in. The union was also the only lobbying group invited to a meeting that state officials held this week with the U.S. Department of Ed to review the state's first application.

Bennett's stance sends a clear signal to parents and policymakers who might otherwise be too busy or too distracted to follow the ins and outs of Indiana school reform. It puts ISTA on notice that Bennett can only be pushed so far and allows him to make clear to teachers and parents that union pushback is costing the state's kids.

Duncan can get things back on track. He can congratulate Bennett for his uncompromising stand, remind everyone that buy-in might help an application a bit but that it really shouldn't be regarded as a make-or-break deal, and back away from his unconditional support for Harkin's no-strings-attached $23 billion. Let's hope he steps up as firmly as Bennett just did.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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