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Race to the Concessions

State Superintendent Tony Bennett issued an ultimatum to the Indiana teachers unions today: Get in line on the state's reform plan or the state won't apply for the next round of the Race to the Top competition.

The $250 million available would be attractive to unions looking at thousands of job losses, but don't be surprised if ISTA and Indiana's AFT affiliate call Bennett's bluff.

Some of the provisions in Bennett's reform plan strip away hard-won rights that the teachers unions now enjoy. They won't be happy to accept salary determinations based on evaluations or teacher evaluations based on student test results.

The union rights did not spring from a vacuum, but from real or perceived abuses by school boards and administrators. Read the history of teacher unions and you'll find that they emerged from systems riddled with nepotism and favoritism. If the superintendent wanted to give his nephew a job, he simply fired a teacher to make a place for him.

Several years ago, I attended a conference on the role of unions in school reform. One speaker, a Harvard labor studies professor, described teacher contracts as an "autopsy" of the administration/teacher relationship. Likewise, a retired Indiana superintendent told me once that the labor contract in his district set dismissal time for teachers 15 minutes after the end of the school day because he had some teachers practically running over children to get out of the parking lot when the bell rang.

I spoke with Superintendent Bennett today and asked what he had to offer the unions in return for their support.

"It's not really about what's in it for the union," was his reply, "We should be looking at this from the standpoint of the future of our kids."

That suggests that Bennett sees the unions' interests as counter to the students. I'm not sure that's fair and I'm not certain that $250 million is enough to pressure teachers to hand off some huge concessions.

Teach for America has an interesting analysis of the Race to the Top application process, including the myth that "States cannot win without full buy-in from local districts and unions, and that means watering down their reform agenda." Warning -- it opens as a pdf.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at