THE END OF THE EDUCATION COLD WAR
Strikingly, the teachers union worked in conjunction with the tough-talking, union-busting Governor Christie to iron out the details of the Newark plan. Though Christie sprinkled his speech at this summer's Republican National convention with anti-union rhetoric, he and Del Grasso appeared to have a very amicable relationship.
Del Grasso said that dealing with the Governor was very positive and pragmatic. The Governor was very willing to compromise on certain points in order to finalize the project. New Jersey's Commander-in-Fleece appears to have a very different persona when he's behind closed doors with other policy makers.
Del Grasso said, "the governor likes to say we're on different streets, but we all have to get on the same boulevard. We all have our own points of view, but we can compromise on the boulevard. Christie was gracious enough to compromise."
Christie was not the only participant to compromise on this deal. The teachers' unions have traditionally opposed merit pay measures. The NEA, the other major teachers union, continues to fight these measures, which makes a state-wide plan unlikely. Yet, the AFT worked jointly with the Governor to create this plan.
THE FUTURE OF MERIT PAY
So, why did the unions change their mind?
According to Jeff Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia's Teachers College, the merit pay program in Newark is a sign of the political weakness of teachers' unions. The AFT, which is more nimble and politically savvy than the NEA, has recognized that they must show that unions are not in the business of supporting bad teachers or opposing innovation. Brighouse also noted that the AFT, more than the NEA, is responding to the increasing pressure to do things differently.
Henig said, "local teachers unions with the blessing of the AFT are softening their rigid objection to some kinds of merit pay and some incorporation of student outcomes rather than risk that this will happen without them at the table."
Unions have seen smaller programs implemented in other areas without adverse impact on teachers.
Henig also points out that the Zuckerberg money reduced the stakes in this fight, since new bonus money would not be taken from other areas in the budget. Del Grasso was confident that foundations and other philanthropic organizations would continue to provide money for this program, when the Zuckerberg money was gone.
Del Grasso said that he was never really opposed to the idea of merit pay, because he had once worked in a factory where it was the norm to reward extra effort with a bonus. He also said that the peer evaluation component of the Newark deal made the plan more appealing to union members.
This deal in Newark certainly represents a new mode of education politics, one marked by a weakening of hardline positions by both Republicans and teachers unions. Newark's program will certainly lead to similar programs across the country. Unions that fail to bend may not survive the new education world. Hopefully, the big winners from the end of the Education Cold War will be the kids.