karen-aronowitz_web.jpgLast month, on behalf of United Teachers of Dade and our educators and children, I said I could not sign on the dotted line in order to possibly receive federal grant money through the Florida Department of Education.

The money involved seemed huge – up to $700 million, if Florida were to receive the maximum amount from the feds.  I see you shaking your heads, thinking, “The woman must be off her rocker.  Always complaining about not enough money and she’s saying no when they’re flinging dollars her way like beads at Mardi Gras.”

To restore my reputation for sanity, let me explain. There are some things that many of us will not do.  For most of us, the list is pretty similar.  I’m pretty sure no one reading this would commit murder for money.  Or kidnap someone for money.  Or sell ___________ (you fill in this blank.)  You just wouldn’t do it.  You wouldn’t do it for one dollar or a million dollars.

United Teachers of Dade took a look at the grant when the federal government first started talking about it.  We were excited.  Race to the Top funds would be given to states that developed innovative, collaborative local proposals crafted by school districts and their teachers’ unions.  It seemed, well, too good to be true.

States chosen to apply would compete for the funding; points would be awarded to a state applicant based on the degree to which they demonstrated innovative, locally developed program proposals, with a high degree of collaboration among all education stakeholders.  A state’s application, called a Memorandum of Understanding, in fact was to be signed by the local district superintendent, the chair of the local school board, and the president of the local teachers’ union.

Eureka!  We teachers, the people who stand in front of students day after day delivering instruction, were finally being asked for our ideas and input.  We said “yes” immediately. We began to work with the district on ideas that would make a difference in the lives of students living right here in Miami-Dade.  Some good proposals were under way.

And then the Florida Department of Education sent us its Memorandum of Understanding, wanting us to sign an agreement that contradicted the intent and scope of the Race to The Top.  The Florida Department of Education’s (DOE) proposed “agreement” was a prescriptive, non-collaborative, bureaucratic, nightmare mandate.

The DOE in effect said, ‘In order for you, local district, to receive this grant money, you must first do everything we put in Exhibit One.  (Twenty-two pages long, small type.)  That includes evaluating every teacher every year based 50 percent or more on the test scores of their students.  The district must use a state assessment (FCAT) to evaluate teacher effectiveness, but if no state assessment (FCAT) is available because of grade level or subject area, the district must create a test for that grade level or subject area.’

For Miami-Dade schools, that would mean creating 2,300 new tests for our students, more or less.  Not for the good of the student.  Not to improve the instructional practice of the teacher.    

Do you know how much money that would cost?  I do.  More than any dollar amount we would win in this grant competition.  Not only would there be no money left for the innovative, collaboratively developed local proposals, receiving this grant also would end up costing our district money.

There was much more in the DOE’s mandate, and it was as wretchedly bad as the bit I just shared.  What’s in it for the teachers of Miami-Dade, if we had agreed to sign?  Nothing.  What’s in it for the students of Miami-Dade, if we had agreed to sign?  Less time spent on learning.  A lot more time spent on testing, and worse. 

I want you to know I would have said yes if I could.  I wanted to say yes.  We all wanted something wonderful for our students and our teachers right here at home.  Instead, I said no.  There are some things one just can’t do, and sometimes a deal can be too good to be true. 

Karen Aronowitz is president of the United Teachers of Dade, which represents 38,000 teachers and school support personnel in the Miami-Dade County Public School system.