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A chronicle of Race to the Top fills in the blanks of NY’s story

Much of the information that appears in a New York Times Magazine piece by Steven Brill (debuting online today) is not news, but there are a few New York-centric nuggets that are worth highlighting.

“The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand,” is a chronicle of the post-Race to the Top world in which a relatively small amount of money, $4.3 billion dollars, and a lot of political pressure from the federal government have led to concessions from teachers unions that many didn’t think possible under a Democratic president.

To many New Yorkers, that narrative is probably well-worn at this point (it may even be on your Facebook profile and tabloid pages in the form of paid advertisements) but Brill has some items that are entertaining.

  • MOU shenanigans

Brill finds that New York, like a handful of other states, dressed up its application to make it seem like the unions were on board when they weren’t. State officials checked off all the boxes for every school district indicating that they had signed a memorandum of understanding with the teachers union that would allow the changes to teacher evaluation and merit pay to go through. But attached to the application was a separate MOU saying the union contract still held, preventing any of the changes from taking place. Because the MOU was essentially meaningless, Klein did not want to sign it, Brill writes.

“When I asked Tisch about this, she pointed to another added sentence, in which each school system and the union agree to negotiate any necessary contract changes in ‘good faith.’ That’s the ‘way we solved that,’ she says.

‘Right,’ Klein says. ‘That’s like telling a woman you’ll marry her in the morning.’ …

… “David Steiner, the commissioner for the New York State Department of Education, signed the application. He offered no explanation for why the boxes were checked other than that his staff has since looked at other applications and found that Florida, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Illinois also checked the boxes ‘based,’ he said, ‘on a future commitment to collectively bargain.'”

  • Merryl Tisch’s shriek:

“That is also why, at about midnight on Saturday, Jan. 16, Tisch answered the phone in her apartment on the East Side of Manhattan and let out an earsplitting shriek. She recalls that her husband, James Tisch, who is the chief executive of Loews Corporation, thought someone must have died. What she was reacting to was a draft of a bill concerning charters that had just been released by the State Assembly.

The first paragraphs seemed to lift the cap. But a closer reading revealed so many conditions that it would be no easier to start new charters than under the current law. With three days left before New York’s application was due, Silver and the Democrats were choosing to side with the union over winning a possible $700 million that the Race offered her financially strapped state. Thus, Tisch’s shriek.”

  • The hostage tape

Left to defend an application already loaded with promises the state couldn’t get past the union, Deputy Commissioner John King struggled.

“When it came time for King and four others representing New York to make a presentation to the Race’s vetters in Washington, King’s performance, as seen on a video I reviewed of the session, looked a bit like a hostage tape.

‘We were all struggling,’ King recalls. ‘We thought we had a great proposal in terms of what we could control — like curricula standards and data systems — but the areas we could not control because of the contracts and laws were difficult.'”

To be fair, all of competing states’ videos looked like hostage tapes, as everyone sat in bunker lighting and appeared uncomfortable.

  • And rubber rooms again

Brill writes about the agreement to close the city’s rubber rooms as a win for Chancellor Joel Klein and a concession from the union. But at the time, union officials were far more enthusiastic about the deal than Klein was, mainly because it promised to speed up the arbitration process without making it significantly easier to fire a teacher for misconduct or incompetence.

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