Teachers federation boycotts program

Education fund decision may jeopardize grants

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / April 14, 2010

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The state’s second-largest teachers union organization, which represents teachers in Boston and other big cities, has decided to boycott Massachusetts’ application for the Obama administration’s innovative educational fund, possibly jeopardizing $250 million in grants.

The move, approved Saturday by the board of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, stunned state education leaders, key legislators, and charitable organizations that work on education issues.

Word of the vote began circulating yesterday after the teachers federation sent an e-mail late Monday night to state education officials saying that both the statewide organization and its locals would not sign the application for the Race to the Top program, established by the Obama administration to reward states pursuing classroom innovations and aggressive overhauls of failing schools.

In addition to Boston, the federation represents teachers in some of the most distressed districts, such as Lawrence, Lynn, and Lowell.

“It’s shortsighted,’’ said Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education. “It doesn’t do justice to the dedicated teachers we have in this state, including teachers in the AFT locals, who are in fact committed to reforms.’’

The teachers federation could not be reached for comment yesterday to explain its position.

The boycott comes as the state is reworking its Race to the Top application after being rejected in the first round of funding two weeks ago. The application deadline for the second round is in June, and the state is hoping to shore up areas of weakness.

Massachusetts appears to have lost a few points in the first round for not securing support from all school districts, according to written comments from federal reviewers. About two-thirds of the state’s school districts, including the federation’s Boston and Lowell affiliates, supported the application, which outlined dramatic changes the districts would pursue.

By contrast, proposals for the two states that won, Delaware and Tennessee, reached 100 percent of students.

Massachusetts set a high bar for a school district to participate in the competition, requiring the superintendent, school committee chairman, and union president to sign a memorandum of understanding to pursue dramatic educational changes, as outlined by the state. State education leaders told dozens of districts they could not participate because they did not get a union signature.

The loss of signatures this time around could be disastrous, some observers said. With Massachusetts ranking 13th out of 16 finalists in the first round, a reduction in just a few points on any part of the next application could make the difference between receiving money or not, especially as other states strengthen their proposals.

State education officials said they may rethink their decision to require a union signature from local districts, not wanting to lose the chance for grants for some of the state’s most academically challenged districts where school overhauls are imperative.

But the US Education Department might not look favorably on relaxing the requirement, said Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary

He said the federation’s boycott “constitutes a real threat to our capacity to be successful with this proposal.’’

Earlier this year, the Legislature, at the urging of Governor Deval Patrick, passed a sweeping education bill to expand charter schools and overhaul underperforming schools, in part to improve the state’s chances of securing the new federal money.

The failure to get money in the first round caused disappointment on Beacon Hill, and emotions swirled again yesterday over the federation’s boycott.

“I’m extremely disappointed that the AFT would jeopardize Massachusetts chances at tens of millions of dollars that could have a meaningful impact on the children of this Commonwealth,’’ said Representative Martha M. Walz, a Boston Democrat and cochairwoman of the Joint Education Committee.

Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, called the federation’s move a “crude tactic’’ at the expense of children’s education and said that union leadership is out of touch.

“They don’t seem to realize the political ground is shifting and people want these changes,’’ Grogan said.

Beyond the boycott, the Boston Teachers Union has in recent days started to galvanize its members to oppose some measures Superintendent Carol R. Johnson has proposed under the new state law to turn around underperforming schools.

Johnson has called for such things as forcing teachers to work additional hours without pay and nullifying seniority rules in layoffs.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, is waiting until the application is rewritten before making a recommendation to its locals, which includes academically challenged Springfield and Worcester. The organization supported the previous application and is working with the state on the redraft.

“If there are things in the application not in the best interest of students, members, and public education, we won’t support it,’’ said Anne Wass, the association’s president. “We are not going to give up our principles to get a pot of gold.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at

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