When it comes to $$$, WEAC Sees Little Difference Between Carrot and Stick

Is it any wonder many teachers have a hard time managing bad behavior in their classrooms or why some don’t like to issue grades? Their union can’t understand the difference between incentives and punishment and can’t handle real standards.

Before any beleaguered teachers inundate me with email, I’m kidding.

But WEAC wasn’t joking recently when they chimed in on new standards and incentives for excellence in education. And when it comes to their treatment of students as commodities with dollars attached to them, it’s really not funny.

The No Child Left Behind Act was never very popular among the education establishment. It set high standards and punished schools that could not live up to them. Educators argued it set schools into a downward spiral, where struggling students would not receive the resources needed to improve. Many educators hoped Barack Obama would overturn NCLB after he became president. Instead, after more than a year, he’s changing the name and focus, but he insists high standards will remain.

On Monday the Department of Education described NCLB as “the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA).” The department is now going with the name “ESEA.”

Also, where President Bush’s education policy focused on the “stick,” President Obama claims he’s trying the “carrot.”

He wants to reward schools that are succeeding. Note: Let’s set aside the timid nature of Obama’s attempt at reform used here and focus on the concept of incentivizing excellence.

Although the Department of Education officially unveiled his education reform plans on Monday, President Obama has been giving indications of his intentions for months.

We’ll dig into the details in the weeks head, but the battle lines have already been drawn between the union-dominated education establishment and the seemingly reform-minded Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

As always, it all comes down to money.

In Madison back in November, Obama announced Race to the Top, a grant program that rewards innovation and improvement. (We’ve written at length about the program and how Wisconsin fell short).

“This is not normally how federal dollars work,” said Obama in Madison last year. “But because of [Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s] tenacity and our commitment to make sure that reform happens, that’s how we’ve structured it. We’re saying to states, if you are committed to real change in the way you educate your children, if you’re willing to hold yourselves more accountable, and if you develop a strong plan to improve the quality of education in your state, then we’ll offer you a big grant to help you make that plan a reality.”

The Department of Education explained under ESEA, “The accountability system also will recognize and reward high-poverty schools and districts that are showing improvement getting their students on this path, using measures of progress and growth.”

In an interview with Madison’s WKOW-TV on Monday, The Wisconsin Educators Association Council (WEAC) revealed it doesn’t care for a reward-based system anymore than it was in favor of the stick-based system.

Mary Bell, WEAC president, said “It continues the idea that somehow schools need to compete for federal dollars when we know that there are communities and schools that are in desperate need of federal assistance to deal with particular challenges.”

In other words, by rewarding some schools, you’re punishing those schools you don’t reward, and that is unforgivable.

The carrot is just as bad as the stick, if not everyone gets a carrot.

Standards? How contemptible.

WKOW-TV reports that WEAC supports much of the president’s plan. It is in favor of high standards, they insist.

“It isn’t that we don’t want to be accountable, but we want the accountability to measure what matters,” Bell said.

Of course, she never explained what it is that matters.

As we reported and discussed here, Bell and WEAC were instrumental in watering down an education reform bill in Wisconsin last year.

WEAC and the president are at odds over empowering school districts to fire bad teachers.

“This has caused some controversy in some places, but it shouldn’t be controversial. Any state that has a so-called firewall law will have to remove them. Now, here’s what a firewall law is: It basically says that you can’t factor in the performance of students when you’re evaluating teachers. That is not a good message in terms of accountability. So we said, if you’ve got one of those laws, if you want to compete for these grants you got to get rid of that law,” Obama said in Madison, referring to the Race to the Top grants.

The state legislature created a bill that would allow teachers to be evaluated based on student performance, but districts wouldn’t be able to discipline them unless it was a subject of their collective bargaining agreement for that district. Instead of tearing down one wall between evaluating teachers based on student performance, the legislature (caving to WEAC) threw up hundreds.

Bell spoke at a Senate Committee hearing in October just prior to the president’s visit. She spoke in favor of the weakened bill, saying it “acknowledges that just as a single test does not represent the sum total of a student’s abilities, a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom cannot be judged solely on their students’ standardized test scores.”

Republican lawmakers said the bill was not what the president intended, and it would jeopardize Wisconsin’s chances of receiving Race to the Top money.

Bell disagreed. She said “Our union of educators believes the changes embodied in the proposal before you today reflect the best practices in developing and implementing comprehensive and effective teacher evaluation systems while ensuring Wisconsin’s eligibility for Race to the Top dollars.”

In the end the Republicans were right; Bell, WEAC and the education establishment were wrong. Wisconsin did not make the first cut for the Race to the Top money.

Next month, the Department of Education may release Wisconsin’s scorecard, explaining why the state did not make the cut. That could be a fascinating read.

After it was announced Wisconsin did not make the first cut for Race to the Top, Bell said in a statement, “I want to be clear that our union still supports comprehensive education reform designed for the long run, not just one race. This is the time that the state and local districts should seek the input and perspective of people who work in the classroom. Wisconsin educators stand ready to go about the important work of reforming education the right way – with everyone working together toward a common goal and with resources backing up our education system so success can be achieved.”

More money without strings attached is just fine for WEAC and the education establishment.

Things just get messy when funds are attached to actual performance in any way.

By Brian Fraley
A MacIver Perspective