Virginia Unions Squabble Over Governor’s Teacher Proposals

Published February 6, 2013

FREDERICKSBURG, VA — Virginia teachers unions are squabbling over whether to endorse Gov. Bob McDonnell’s “Educator Fairness Act” that would streamline dismissals of “incompetent” teachers and lengthen probationary teaching from three to five years.

The Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest public-sector labor union, announced it supported the proposals. Apparently, other teachers 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,” said Steve Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers. The VEA “never consulted with their largest local in the state—the Fairfax Education Association—as they oppose the agreement as well.”

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

House Bill 2151, sponsored by Delegate Dickie Bell (R-Staunton) and Sen. Tommy Norment (R-Richmond), would also tighten evaluations of tenured teachers and give principals freedom to award tenure to “exceptional” teachers early. The new teacher evaluations would have to include student test scores as a “significant component and overall summative rating.” The bill would also require school boards to assign each new principal a mentor.

Union Business: Job Protection
“The reality is that [unions] don’t support reform,” said Terry Moe, a Stanford University-based teachers union expert. “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,” said Moe, who authored the book Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools.

“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 “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.

Working Behind the Scenes
Moe suggested 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.”

Statements like this reflect the union’s strategy for maintaining its power, Moe said, “not a reflection of their truly ‘coming around’ on teacher accountability.”

The American Federation of Teachers’ Fairfax affiliate is already poking holes in McDonnell’s proposal, which cleared the House Education Committee on January 21.

Allegations of Abuse
Greenburg questioned the legislation’s definition of “exceptional” teachers—”it makes us nervous,” he said—and speculated school administrations could abuse the proposed streamlined grievance process.

“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.

A 2012 survey of school district contracts found only a minuscule percentage of instructors failed to earn “continuing contracts”—Virginia’s version of tenure—after the current three-year probationary period. This fits with data from the National Center for Education Statistics showing just 1.3 percent of Virginia teachers were pink-slipped for poor performance—one of the lowest percentages among the states.

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

Kenric Ward ([email protected]) is the Virginia bureau chief for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Reprinted from with permission.

Image by U.S. Department of Education.