THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Scot Lehigh

Teachers unions’ race to nowhere

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / April 16, 2010

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LET’S SAY there was a monthly award for dunderheaded behavior by a public-employees union. Why, let’s even give it a name. How about, the Stutman Trophy for Obstinately Myopic Positions, after Richard Stutman, the longtime president of the Boston Teachers Union.

The STOMP Award, for short.

This month, the hands-down winner would be the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, which just voted not to cooperate with state attempts to win $250 million in federal education dollars.

Why am I singling out Stutman, whose Boston union is only one of 20-some affiliates? Partly because of the symbolism of his previous shoot-yourself-in-the-foot follies. After all, Stutman’s relentless opposition to pilot schools alienated important Democratic allies and helped build support for lifting the cap on charter schools. That cap lift was a great development for charter supporters, but anathema to the Boston Teachers Union membership.

I also suspect Stutman was a driving force behind this latest move. He didn’t return my calls, and Tom Gosnell, president of American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, would say only that “this had overwhelming support on the board.’’ The federal Race to the Top program, he says, is “a measure, label, punish approach.’’

But consider: Stutman and the Boston Teachers Union are fighting with the Menino administration over its plans to turn around underperforming schools. Stutman sits on the parent union’s executive board, which took the vote not to back the state’s efforts in round two of the Race to the Top competition. In a bulletin to Boston union members, Stutman said that the teachers’ federation would not support the Race to the Top application in round two because of “the lack of cooperation the BTU and other MA teacher unions are receiving . . . The BTU will exhaust all remedies as we push back against the superintendent’s heavy-handed proposals.’’

So this latest move looks an awful lot like Stutsmanship (Stutman + brinksmanship) run amok.

Massachusetts, like most other applicants, lost out in the first round of Race to the Top. However, we now know the weak spots in our application. Success in round two could mean as much as $250 million to improve our schools. But having the participation of teachers is important to the federal awarding authorities.

“The AFT’s action jeopardizes our capacity to get a quarter of a billion dollars that would benefit students and teachers all across the Commonwealth,’’ says Paul Reville, the state secretary of education.

State Representative Marty Walz, House chairman of the Legislature’s education committee, is more blunt. “The AFT is focused purely on its own members rather than on the educational needs of children,’’ she says.

Now, no one was surprised that the teachers unions balked at the education reform legislation needed to position the state for the federal dollars. But that battle is over. The focus is now on implementing that legislation and reapplying for the federal money. Further, state officials had committed to working with teachers as they go about those tasks.

“They were at the table and having an impact,’’ says Reville. “To walk away from that process strikes me as paradoxical.’’

What’s more, Mitchell Chester, the state’s K-12 education commissioner, had required local union sign-off if a district hoped to benefit from Race to the Top dollars. If the American Federation of Teachers locals abandon the process, the state may have to move forward on application without teacher participation, at least in teachers’ federation school districts. Those districts include Boston, Lowell, Lynn, Lawrence, Peabody, and Salem. (To its credit, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which represents far more communities, has continued to work with the state.)

“I want to keep teachers at the table, but if the AFT is going to withdraw them, they have changed the ground rules,’’ Chester says.

To sum it all up, the teachers federation move could imperil the state’s chances to win as much as $250 million. Students could forfeit the boost that better schools impart. And teachers could lose their say in the process.

And that’s why the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts would be the easy winner of this month’s STOMP award.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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