Brief Note on Teacher Buy-In

Michael Grunwald of Time magazine has recently written a book that describes the 2009 fiscal stimulus law as a triumph of affirmative government. To give you an illustration of how Grunwald presents his arguments, I recommend a recent post on Gov. Chris Christie and New Jersey’s failure to secure funds under the Race to the Top initiative:

In fact, the budget error was not the main problem with New Jersey’s application. The state lost many more points because it lacked buy-in from its teachers unions, which was entirely Christie’s fault. Schundler had worked out a deal with the unions to support New Jersey’s reform plans, winning concessions that would have made it easier to reward good teachers and fire bad ones. But at the last minute Christie scuttled the deal, complaining that it didn’t go far enough.

Still, Christie’s allegations about the Education Department interview were potentially explosive. They were also bogus. A videotape of the meeting proved that Christie’s aides never tried to correct their error. Christie, forced to find a new scapegoat, fired Schundler. “Thank God we taped it,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told me. “When you play it straight, things usually work out in the end.”

And sometimes when you don’t play it straight, you get to give a keynote address. [Emphasis added]

It certainly sounds as though the Christie administration didn’t handle itself well. But consider that states lost points for not having secured “buy-in” from teachers unions, an idea that goes unexamined in the post — perhaps understandably, given the fact that it is quite short. (One assumes that Grunwald makes an extensive case for teacher buy-in in his book.)

As Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute has argued, however, the emphasis on “buy-in” or “stakeholder support has had problematic consequences, e.g., a number of states that have been leaders in implementing successful education reforms were passed over in favor of states that had the backing of politically powerful teachers. In a recent article in National Review, Hess elaborates on this theme: 

Romney would do well to note that Race to the Top — Obama’s much-lauded $4.35 billion grant competition, which rewarded states that promised to pursue 19 federally prescribed educational “priorities” — essentially required a union sign-off; that every one of the dozen winning states failed to live up to its airy, expensive promises; that less than 5 percent of the $100 billion–plus in education stimulus funds went to the administration’s education-reform initiatives, while the rest was simply handed out to school districts with no strings attached; and that the administration has berated states and districts for daring to cut education spending — and even adopted Race to the Top criteria that penalized states that sought to tighten their belts.

It could be that requiring a union sign-off is a very good thing, and that it has encouraged a superior mix of reforms. I find this somewhat unlikely, as Terry Moe’s Special Interest provides compelling evidence that organizations representing teachers are primarily devoted to advancing the interests of the median engaged member, which don’t always align with the interests of students. Hess’s claim that “every one of the dozen winning states failed to live up to its airy, expensive promises” lends credence to this view, though of course Hess could be wrong. 

Regardless, it is nice to have this context. It is interesting to see Time magazine, like Newsweek, taking such a forthright, ideologically unambiguous stance on questions of public concern. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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