The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teachers strike that started last week – the first in the district in 25 years – is not the first time this year that CPS’s administration has been thwarted by the teachers union. Earlier this year, the school district voluntarily cancelled its $35 million, five-year Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grant when it failed to obtain buy-in from the Chicago Teachers Union.
The Teacher Incentive Fund program, conceived under President Bush but dramatically reformed and expanded by the current administration, provides large grants to school districts to support the development and adoption of professional development activities and teacher compensation systems that are based on student performance. Congress funded the program at $99 million in fiscal year 2006, but that amount grew to nearly $300 million through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. In fiscal year 2010, the Department of Education awarded $400 million in grants to 62 recipients.
However, three of the fiscal year 2010 awardees have found their own applications so ambitious that they elected to return the money to the Department of Education. In addition to Chicago Public Schools, the New York City and Milwaukee public school districts have returned their funds. Across the three cities, the Department had awarded $88 million to be spent over five years. More than half of that had already been disbursed to the districts.
The program required applicants to earn the support of teachers and principals for the plans to be implemented at the affected schools. But in the 2010 application, the Department allowed applicants an entire year after they won the grant to obtain the support of the local union. In Chicago’s case, this meant working with a union president who came into power after the application was submitted – Karen Lewis, the same woman leading the current CPS strike. Lewis, as it turns out, is vehemently opposed to the type of pay-for-performance system outlined in the application. Due to stalemate over the proposal, Chicago Public Schools returned $21 million of its $35 million grant on July 30 of this year.
Milwaukee also failed to obtain the required support within the planning period. In January 2012, Milwaukee Public Schools returned the $1.2 million it had received of its $7.6 million TIF grant.
New York City won its grant while working with the union, but the details they arrived at during the planning period failed to pass muster with U.S. Department of Education officials. Efforts to redesign the plan were stymied when city officials could not reach an agreement with the local union, the United Federation of Teachers. New York City followed suit and returned more than half of its grant – $24 million of a $46 million total award – on March 31. However, the city has applied for a 2012 TIF grant. Not all of the funds will be recovered from any of the 2010 grants; the districts are entitled to keep a portion to cover costs already incurred.
For the fiscal year 2012 competition, nearly $300 million are available to new applicants. School districts applying for TIF grants (applications for which were due this summer) are now required to show local support when they submit their plans, meaning they won’t have a planning period to gather that support after being awarded the funds. Applicants will also design teacher evaluation systems for an entire district, not for hand-selected schools within the district. And those plans must include job growth opportunities and additional compensation for additional responsibilities for teachers.
The program’s fatal flaw, at least for these three districts, was in allowing districts to apply and win the grants even without the support of the unions. Ultimately, though, the districts would need the assistance of teachers, both to remain in good standing with the Department of Education and receive the remainder of the grant money and to successfully implement their ambitious teacher compensation systems. Perhaps 2012 awardees will have greater success in implementing their plans – though the stricter requirements may scare off some districts nervous about their teachers’ reactions.