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U.S. Ed. Official: States Need to Promote Union-District Cooperation

States need to take a more active role in promoting cooperation between teachers' unions and school districts, rather than leaving that work to individual school systems, a top U.S. Department of Education official told state lawmakers gathered for a national conference.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, said getting governors, lawmakers, and state agencies more involved in building bridges between labor and management is the best way for collaboration to take hold on a large scale.

Weiss' agency has been active in selling cooperation between teachers' unions and districts, pitching it as an alternative to the hostility on display in some school systems and states. At a conference earlier this year, the department highlighted what it saw as successful examples of unions and districts putting down their knives, at least long enough to make progress on teacher evaluation and other areas. (Weiss said the department will stage another conference on collaboration in the next year.)

But Weiss also said that encouraging collaboration "is really a local issue, and a state issue, It's not an issue that the federal government has any particular standing in."

Weiss was speaking at the annual legislative summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures, an event I'm attending this week, in San Antonio, Texas. She suggested that the department would ask state officials to do their part in encouraging unions and districts to get on the same page while making tough policy changes.

"You have a lot of power to do things here, to really accelerate the pace of change in reform," she said. "It's important to think about these things at the state level, and not just let spotty innovations happen and then die as those leaders move on."

Weiss said department officials have been examining the landmark accord in Illinois that resulted in the creation of a new system for evaluating and rewarding teachers. Agency officials have spoken with union leaders in Illinois, and others, in the hope of gathering lessons that would be relevant to other states.

The federal official drew a contrast between the Illinois agreement and the controversial collective bargaining law in neighboring Wisconsin, which led to months of protests and discord. Both Duncan and President Obama have criticized the Wisconsin law, which was championed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Several legislators who either supported or opposed the law are now the subject of recall elections.

"There's the Wisconsin model, and there's the Illinois model," Weiss said. "I'll just put those out there for folks to think about, in terms of what will make the biggest difference for kids."

Major changes in school policy are more sustainable, she said, if teachers and administrators "are at the table with legislators."

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