NYSUT’s Flip-Flop on Teacher Evaluations and Charter Schools Pays Off

August 31st, 2010

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s decision to appear at the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) headquarters yesterday during his Race to the Top victory lap around the Northeast was a shock to many in education-reform circles.  It was, after all, the teachers union that had successfully fought against using student achievement data when evaluating teachers and opposed expanding the number of high-quality public charter schools — moves that cost New York a grant in the round-one awards made in January, well before the deadline for a 2010-11 state budget.

Rather than get behind these reforms, NYSUT assumed New York’s senior U.S. Senator, Chuck Schumer, could flex enough political muscle in Washington so that the state would win a grant without instituting any genuine reforms such as these (see FERA president Thomas W. Carroll’s Huffington Post blog story “Schumer’s Role in “Race to the Top”: Is the Fix In?“).  Secretary Duncan and the Obama Administration followed through on the promise to require states to adopt real reforms in order to earn the federal grants, however, New York was shut out when the winners were announced.  When the U.S. Department of Education released the official reviewers’ comments on New York’s application, it became clear that the state’s policies limiting the expansion of charter schools and the ban on the use of student achievement data when evaluating teachers ended up costing the state $700 million.

Following New York’s loss in round one, NYSUT wisely recognized that it needed to end its opposition to these reforms high on the Obama administration’s priority list or risk being widely viewed as standing in the way of a generous federal grant during historically tough budgetary times.  As a result, and facing school district spending cuts at the state and local levels across New York, NYSUT packaged and sold a rather breathtaking 180-degree turnaround, noting how it now supported student performance data-based teacher evaluations and an expansion of charter schools, all in the name of meaningful reform.

Now that New York is cashing in what turned out to be a strong round two application, few seem to remember that NYSUT was the primary force in getting a state law passed in 2008 that banned the use of student test scores as one of the multiple factors used for evaluating teachers for life-long tenure.  As the union touts on its website (here), it played a “leading role in securing language that bars the use of student test scores as a yardstick for tenure” and a statement by NYSUT president Richard Iannuzzi himself claiming that “student assessments are designed to assess students, not teachers.”  So much for that.  Now it can claim to have played a leading role in reversing the policy it previously fought for.

When the debate to lift the cap on the number of public charter schools heated up to make the state more competitive for a round two Race to the Top grant, NYSUT struck a new tune, claiming that it hadn’t opposed charter schools.  One only has to see their public comments dating back to 1998 that demonstrates there opposition to the implementation and expansion of these high-quality public schools and union leaders’ routinely mischaracterizing them to turn public opinion against them (see “New York Teachers Unions: A History of Opposition to Public Charter Schools,” May 21, 2010).

New York is doing right by its students and as a result is now reaping the rewards, despite previous positions of the state’s teachers union.  One can only hope that NYSUT is now truly serious about getting behind these reforms, willing to work with superintendents and school boards to implement the new teacher evaluation systems at the local level and once and for all ending efforts to stop charter schools from opening in underserved communities.  Hopefully, Secretary Duncan and other education officials in Washington will keep tabs on the promises New York’s key stakeholders have made in their Race to the Top plans to ensure that NYSUT continues to play nice.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.