Contrary to what was recently reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, the United Educators of San Francisco did not walk away from $15 million in federal Race to the Top grant money. In fact, the teachers union worked diligently to come to an agreement with the school district in an effort to submit a grant application. What neither district officials nor the teachers’ union were willing to do was make permanent and costly changes to our schools based on unproven ‘reform’ efforts in exchange for money that would run out in four years.

With only a few weeks notice (not the months reported in the Chronicle), UESF President Dennis Kelly and Executive Vice-President Susan Solomon worked closely with district administrators to find common ground on evaluations, the cited sticking point to the Race to the Top District (RTTT-D) grant.

The grant required that student test scores be used as a ‘significant’ portion of teacher evaluations. The plan that the district and the union came up with involved using test scores in evaluations by means of California Standard 5.4, which measures how well teachers use results of assessments to guide student instruction.

The consultant from the Parthenon Group, who worked with the district on the application, ultimately rejected this plan. The consultant also rejected an alternative evaluation system that would apply only to the teachers working under the grant and only for the duration of the grant.

There was no standoff or acrimony in the room. The district and the union made a good faith effort to work with the consultant to find common ground. We did not walk away from the table, nor did the district push the union to make drastic changes to the evaluation system.

But that’s not the story that the Chronicle wishes to tell.

The consultants insisted that an arbitrary percentage of each teacher’s evaluation be based on student test scores. Furthermore they insisted that these changes be mandated for all schools, even beyond the grant funding. Neither the district nor the union were willing to go there.

At the table, one SFUSD administrator admitted that tying test scores to evaluations any further than the proposed UESF plan would have been a giant step backward for the evaluation process, a sentiment shared by critics of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, including local parents.

Over the past four years, UESF and the SFUSD have worked to greatly improve the evaluation system, by more rigorously aligning evaluations to the California Standards for the Teaching Profession. We have streamlined the process to get teachers the help they need in the Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program. Although not reported in the Chronicle at all, these changes were lauded by former Superintendent Carlos Garcia in an April Op-Ed in the SF Examiner titled, “SFUSD Program holds teachers accountable.

Despite the Chronicle’s attempts to portray UESF as having walked away from easy money, the RTTT-D grant was also not guaranteed. The Federal government has allotted only $400 million to be spread across the nation. Already hundreds of districts across the country have applied for the grant. According to the consultants hired by the district, the amount of money potentially available to SFUSD would have been $14.1 million over 4 years – or approximately $3.5 million per year. To put this in perspective, this amount is .06% of the district’s $545 million annual budget.

Though the money was not guaranteed and in any event temporary, the changes the district and the union would have been forced to agree to would have been permanent. For educators and observers of public education, such unfunded mandates from the federal and state government are all too familiar burdens. For a school district facing years of deep funding cuts like the SFUSD, these mandates could prove an additional handicap.

There were also serious questions raised by the requirement in the grant application that mandated a comprehensive data tracking system, with no continuing financial support from the federal government at the end of the grant. The District’s Chief Technology Officer has even gone on the record recently questioning the wisdom of such mandates.

Interestingly enough, neither the Superintendent nor any of the administrators who worked with UESF on the RTTT-D grant were interviewed for the Chronicle story. Had the reporter taken the time to actually interview the people who were at the table, she might have learned the truth.

The hatchet job on Race to the Top made the front page of Chronicle. But the amount of money at stake is pennies on the dollar for what will happen to the district should Prop. 30 fail to pass. With the election right around the corner, where is the front page article detailing the devastating impact the coming school cuts will have on our students, including the three-plus weeks of furlough days that are set to be implemented?

It’s much easier to build up a straw man and knock him down. It’s much easier to paint teachers unions as the enemy of reform.

UESF will continue to seek sustainable funding and thoughtful school reform, not more strings attached to woefully unproven experiments at the cost of real teaching and learning.