L.A Teachers’ Union Jeopardizes Race to the Top Grant

Nov 8, 2012

District applications for Race to the Top grants were due last week, but institutional disagreements left the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) with no choice but to submit a seemingly incomplete application. If approved, the Race to the Top grant would give LAUSD $40 million for education reform efforts, including hiring additional qualified teachers and closing the achievement gap among English learners, low-income, and special-needs students.

In 2010, only 41% of LAUSD students were proficient in English and only 39% were proficient in math according to the Nation’s Report Card. With a history of consistent budget cuts, an achievement gap between black, Latino, and lower-income students and their more affluent peers, it’s no question that LAUSD desperately needs this money to promote and execute systemic change within their schools. So with an obvious need for additional federal money, what exactly is the problem? The teachers’ union.

In order to officially complete the federal Race to the Top grant application, the district board of superintendents, school board, and local teachers’ unions must collectively approve the proposal. After much deliberation amongst the stakeholders, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) refused to approve the proposal, forcing LAUSD to submit an incomplete application to the U.S. Department of Education.

UTLA President, Warren Fletcher, claims the main factor for the union’s rejection was long-term financial concerns, stating that he assumes the LAUSD’s proposal would end up costing the district $3 to 5 million more than the $40 million the grant would provide and would therefore be unsustainable in future years. It’s hard to believe that they would reject $40 million of “free money” over a $3 to 5 million discrepancy.

The more plausible explanation for UTLA’s refusal to sign the application could be spelled out in the Race to the Top grant application requirements. One such requirement is the implementation and execution of teacher, principal, and superintendent evaluations. Considering UTLA’s notorious aversion to teacher evaluations based on student achievement, it leads one to believe that finances were not the sole, or even real, reason behind UTLA’s refusal. Although it’s only one small aspect of the grant’s requirements, unions resist whenever evaluations and job stability are brought into question. Several other California public school districts also failed to turn in Race to the Top applications due to union concerns over the job security of their members.

Meanwhile, UTLA actively promoted the adoption of Proposition 30, which was passed in California last night. Its passage will increase state sales tax for four years, and property income tax for seven years, generating an estimated $6 billion annually in additional state revenues. While Proposition 30 states that this money will be directed towards education, there are no specifications as to how the money can or must be spent. There are no reform or evaluation elements spelled out within the proposition, which essentially allows bureaucrats to spend however they want, without a commitment to improve student achievement.

So, UTLA is obviously not opposed to massive increases in education funding (and given passage of Proposition 30, it’s doubtful that an additional $3 to 5 million will be hard to come by). What the union is really opposed to is funding that comes with some form of accountability. Continuously feeding money into a broken system without enforcing practical reforms focused on student achievement will not garner success. To establish systemic change, institutional reforms need to be discussed, compromised upon, and implemented by all parties. Money alone, especially without some form of cooperation, cannot fix our failing public schools.

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