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Education Reporter

Unions and States Poised for 'Race To The Top' Showdown
Delaware and Tennessee beat out 14 other finalists in the highly competitive first round of the Race to the Top, winning $100 and $500 million respectively, based on student population. The contest guidelines reward states willing to adopt common standards, evaluate teachers based on student performance, expand charter schools, and aggressively turn around or close failing schools.

Many observers expressed surprise that only two states received first-round grants; Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the small winners circle was designed to encourage the remaining states to continue to refine their reform plans.

In passing over Florida and Louisiana, widely considered favorites, many believe Duncan signaled the importance of statewide stakeholder buy-in. Delaware and Tennessee both garnered near-universal district and teacher union support for their applications despite including measures that base teacher pay and promotions on student performance. Florida submitted one of the most aggressive reform plans, but had backing from only 8% of its unions. Louisana had been widely praised for expanding charter schools and for its plan to hold teachers accountable, but came in 11th in the competition, in part because of minimal support from school districts and local unions.

Obama administration officials said that as many as 15 states could split the remaining $3.4 billion in grants, still a pot big enough to set the stage for a showdown between state officials and unions in numerous states. Already post-round-one skirmishes have erupted in Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota and Ohio.

American Federation of Teachers union president Randi Weingarten attempted to capitalize on the situation in a statement released after the winners were announced. "It is worth noting that states where such [labor-management] collaboration did not exist are not among today's Race to the Top winners," she said.

Duncan told the Wall Street Journal that he welcomed the tension between unions and state officials, but warned states that softened reform plans to gain union buy-in would not be strong contenders. "Watered-down proposals with lots of consensus won't win," he said. "Proposals that drive real reform will win."

Ohio has resorted to promising cash for union signatures. State education officials recently stated they would guarantee a minimum level of funding to districts whose schools and unions back the state's grant application. Education leaders in Connecticut are considering a similar proposal. (Wall Street Journal, 3-29-10, 4-26-10; Education Week, 4-7-10)

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