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To one panel, unions are both moribund and living obstacles

Even though he received 6,000 applications to fill 60 teacher positions last years, charter school operator Seth Andrew said he still has trouble hiring the right people for the job.

Andrew, who runs four Democracy Prep Charter Schools in Harlem said even the promise of a $65,000 starting salary – 50 percent above that of a city teacher’s – did not attract the kind of teaching talent he wants for his schools.

The reason, he said this morning, was that state laws — he called them “barriers” — require most prospective teachers to earn an education degree before they can to teach in a classroom. He said those degrees did not assure that a teacher would be effective, echoing an argument frequently made by advocates of non-traditional teacher training programs.

“It doesn’t matter how you enter the classroom,” Andrew said.

Andrew was one of four panelists at a breakfast sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, that was held to celebrate the release of “Teachers Matter,” a new book authored by senior fellow Marcus Winters. Ex-Schools Chancellor Joel Klein delivered a keynote address lauding the role school choice plays in school reform.

Panel members pointed to what they saw as obstructions reforming teacher recruitment, evaluation, and retention — main issues raised in Winters’ book.

And some panel members didn’t mince words when it came to what they believed was at the root of the problem: teachers unions.

Chris Cerf, New Jersey’s education commissioner and a former deputy chancellor for New York City’s education department, said that any discussion about education policy could not be had without understanding how unions influence the debate.

But Cerf said that particularly since the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition, the political tides had clearly turned and suggested that union leaders would be forced to follow suit whether they like it or not.

“One national union leader realizes the unions are in fatal jeopardy,” Cerf said. He added that “an effective union leader can manage a tactical retreat.”

Cerf would not specify which of the nation’s union presidents he was talking about. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has traditionally been seen as more willing to consider new education policies, such as merit pay, favored by reformers. But last week, the National Education Association published a report advocating for tougher teacher evaluations and quicker dismissals for ineffective teachers.

“AFT isn’t in mortal jeopardy,” Weingarten tweeted in response to Cerf’s comment. “We are trying to have a voice in our profession … that is a movement forward.”

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