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Will the Unions Have A Say on the Stimulus?

Just what kind of say will teachers and teachers' unions have on how the various stimulus dollars are spent, especially the $5 billion in competitive grants meant to spearhead new reform efforts?

That was one of the main themes at a seminar held yesterday by the Albert Shanker Institute, a think-tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.

For many of the union leaders, superintendents, and academics who attended the seminar, this was their first opportunity to hear about the stimulus directly from an Obama administration representative, Marshall "Mike" Smith.

A few of the guests wondered aloud if the stimulus is based on an inherent contradiction: it's asking districts and states to plan carefully and thoughtfully for long-term reform, while requiring that they spend the money in just two years. One guest said it is contributing to strained relationships between unions, superintendents, school boards and the press locally.

Another put it more succinctly: "Quite obviously the priority goes to academic shovel-ready projects," quipped Mary Cathryn Ricker, the president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. She said she worried that the pressure to get funds out quickly would give vendors of pre-packaged or commercial approaches an edge over homegrown reform efforts.

"People are ready to make money rather than support union-management collaboration," she said.

It's not a small worry, as several guests chimed in to say they're already being bombarded with solicitations from the major textbook and test publishers.

The conversation quickly shifted to the discretionary pots of money, including the $200 million Teacher Incentive Fund, the $4.35 billion state "Race to the Top" Fund and the $650 million district-innovation fund, where the administration will have more control over how they dole out the money.

Following up on Ricker's point, an associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Saul A. Rubinstein, asked Smith if the competitive applications or RFPs for the $5 billion fund would require collaboration among districts and unions. Such a requirement could result in innovative plans with strong teacher buy-in, and possibly produce more innovative plans with better implementation, he suggested.

Smith said officials are still considering the shape of the RFP, but he said the administration might even release draft RFPs for comment before putting out a final one.

Although the debate didn't get to this level of detail, I gather that union leaders would favor a requirement that these plans be collectively bargained, which would put a legal framework around them and presumably help with sustainability.

This point about collective bargaining may seem like hair-splitting, but it's an important distinction. Take the Bush administration's first RFP for the Teacher Incentive Fund grant, a federal performance-pay program. It gave additional points to applications that demonstrated buy-in from local communities and unions, but it didn't absolutely require that the plans be collectively bargained.

Subsequently, the National Education Association said it had heard complaints from a local in Eagle County, Colo., that it hadn't been adequately consulted in the design of that district's TIF program.

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