Hawaii Teachers Union Dares Obama Administration to Yank $75 Million Grant

Published February 1, 2012

Last week, Hawaii teachers revolted against their union leadership, governor, and the Obama administration by overwhelmingly rejecting a contract containing flimsy merit pay and annual evaluations to which they objected. Their saga tells how public-sector unions and bureaucracy are the same actor wearing different masks.

One month ago, Education Secretary Arne Duncan threatened to withhold $75 million in federal Race to the Top grants because Gov. Neil Abercrombie and the Hawaii State Teachers Association had failed for an entire year to negotiate a contract incorporating the unpopular provisions, a grant requirement.

By a 2–1 margin, with three-quarters of the state’s teachers voting, teachers rejected a deal their union leadership unanimously recommended. It would have given teachers a 1 percent annual raise if rated “effective,” kept seniority as a pay schedule component, and retained a two-year-old 5 percent pay cut. Hawaii teachers currently are evaluated once every five years, at most.

“I can’t think of anything we did not do to try to accommodate the teachers’ representatives in this agreement,” Abercrombie said.

The contract was merely a precondition for moving forward. It did not specify a merit pay structure, procedure for evaluating teachers, or bonuses it had promised Duncan for teachers working in poor and poor-performing districts. It agreed to tie teacher evaluations to student performance, without detailing how. Though unions successfully have made such provisions name-only for decades (across California, for starters), it was still too close for comfort for Hawaii teachers.

Teacher messages posted by Katherine Poythress at the Honolulu Civil Beat before the vote help explain why. They also display possibly the worst feature of unions, beyond their drive to win Pyrrhic concessions: a culture of “me and money first.”

“No trust for evaluations not even created yet. For-profit iPad evals are ridiculous.” “[W]hy only 4 days [of extra time off per year] for a 5% paycut over a year-and-a-half?” “Very complex to figure out REAL salary & MANY unknowns.” “[O]ver the life of this 6-year contract teachers will not have even caught up with inflation AND there are no across-the-board increases for any of us.”

The average teacher in Hawaii makes $50,000 in salary (much more in benefits) with 15 weeks of summer vacation per year in a top vacation spot. Hawaii faces budget deficits for the foreseeable future, of $19 million this budget year and $312 million by 2017. Its students rank in the bottom 10 of states in proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It’s been well-documented (most recently by a Gates Foundation study) that student test scores are the most reliable way we currently have to judge teacher performance.

Obviously, Hawaii teachers could worry a little less about paying part of their health care premiums like everyone else and be a little more concerned about doing their jobs. The problem, though, is not what teachers make or the minutiae of rating them on government-designed checklists, but that it’s a political question at all.

The Obama administration has used RTT to wedge states into substituting federal mandates for state mandates. Hawaii teachers just told the administration to jump off a waterfall. This is a good instinct, but unfortunately these teachers exercised it to protect one crummy system from another.

Duncan may choose to recover that $75 million from Hawaii. Considering Congress sent him another $550 million last month for RTT, a program that has mostly similar bureaucratic gridlock to show for $4.3 billion so far, whether he does is almost beside the point.

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News and a research fellow at The Heartland Institute.