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Teacher reform for Virginia? Unions say yes … then no

By   /   January 22, 2013  /   News  /   No Comments

READ MY LIPS: Virginia Education Association President Meg Gruber says her union supports Gov. Bob McDonnell’s “Educator Fairness Act,” but union observers aren’t so sure, and there’s grumbling in the ranks.


By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau

FREDERICKSBURG — A surprise endorsement of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s “Educator Fairness Act” could be gone with the wind.

The Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest public-sector labor union, announced that it supported proposals to evaluate teachers and dismiss “incompetent” instructors.

Apparently, other teacher unions didn’t get the memo.

“The VEA rushed into a compromise with the governor that was unnecessary, and puts teacher’s due-process protections at risk,” Steve Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, told Watchdog.org.

Greenburg asserted that the VEA “never consulted with their largest local in the state — the Fairfax Education Association — as they oppose the agreement as well.”

Alleging that the VEA “hastily ‘sold out’ the teachers of Virginia,” Greenburg predicted that union leaders “will receive some major pushback from their membership in the next few weeks.”

Representatives from the Fairfax Education Association were not available for comment Tuesday afternoon.

But Terry Moe, a Stanford University-based expert in teacher unions, said, “The reality is that (unions) don’t support reform.”

“Their ideal would be no reform at all,” Moe said.

“Just as business firms are in the business of making money, the unions are in the business of protecting jobs. This is the key to understanding them,” Moe, who authored the book, “Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools,” told Watchdog.org.

“They are opposed to holding teachers accountable for performance. They don’t want teachers to be rigorously evaluated, especially based — even partly — on test scores. They don’t want any teacher to lose a job simply because they aren’t good in the classroom.”

That said, Moe noted that “unions are in a difficult political environment these days.”

“In Virginia, the political deck is stacked against them, and they probably knew in this instance that Gov. McDonnell was going to get his reform package whether they ‘supported’ it or not,” he said.

Moe pointed to a Machiavellian scenario in which the 60,000-member VEA “could publicly support” McDonnell’s plan, and, then, “behind the scenes, work with the governor’s people to try to soften some of its provisions in return for their ‘support.’”

VEA President Meg Gruber said in a statement:

“In consultation with our members across the state, we’ve been working with Gov. McDonnell, Secretary of Education Laura Fornash, and others to improve the teacher dismissal process so that it is efficient and fair.

“We have agreed with the governor on several proposed changes to existing law we believe meets this goal. We believe the VEA’s involvement in the process has resulted in an improved bill, and Virginia’s teachers have had a voice in laws that directly affect their profession.”

Moe says it ain’t over till it’s over for the unions.

“The important thing for the rest of us to realize is that (VEA) ‘support’ is just a matter of strategy, not a reflection of their truly ‘coming around’ on teacher accountability,” he said.

The American Federation of Teachers’ affiliate in Fairfax already is poking holes in McDonnell’s proposal, which cleared the House Education Committee on Monday.

Greenburg questioned the legislation’s definition of “exceptional” teachers — “it makes us nervous,” he said — and speculated that the proposed streamlined grievance process could be abused by school divisions.

“The language the VEA agreed to provides that the hearing officer is chosen by the school board. If this passes, removing an employee is simply a ‘formality,’ as the administration has control of all of the variables,” he said.

Joy Pullmann, an education analyst at the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based free-market think tank, said Greenburg’s criticism is likely a truer reflection of union thought than the VEA’s press release.

Pullman said Gruber’s statement “makes me wonder what they’re getting in return — and they’re definitely getting something, because similar measures went down at their behest last year.”

This year’s legislation, House Bill 2151, carried by Delegate Richard “Dickie” Bell, R-Staunton, can be found here.

A Watchdog.org survey last fall found that only a minuscule percentage of instructors failed to earn “continuing contracts” — Virginia’s version of tenure — after a three-year probationary period. The governor’s proposal would extend that period to five years in most cases.

Contact Kenric Ward at kenric@watchdogvirginia.org or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward



Kenric Ward was a former San Antonio-based reporter for Watchdog.org.