More on so-called “side deals”

Andy Rotherham has responded to my blog entry early this morning. Let me skip for now the question of why he was the sole person quoted in the article and address the local MOUs in Florida on Race to the Top. Rotherham wrote in part, “If these agreements have no bearing on the state’s application or implementation then why go through the laborious exercise of crafting them[?]” I wasn’t in the room for any of these, but having observed Florida schools for almost 15 years, I can imagine a number of reasons, including distrust by some party in a county in the judgment of FEA President Andy Ford and other participants in the task force about the clause excluding non-mandatory subjects of bargaining from impasse. I said as much in my prior post. I’m not a labor lawyer, and neither is Andy Rotherham, but I do know something about the dynamics within FEA, where there is often a healthy internal debate. The argument that local MOUs are an inherent evasion of the grant is something that requires examination of the actual language at issue.

Now, to my comment about Rotherham’s being used as the sole source for Wednesday’s story in the St. Petersburg Times. Why did it seem curious to me? Partly it’s a matter of sensitivity to these issues on a number of fronts. For more than a year, Rick Hess has been pointing out the potential for all sorts of perception problems with a competitive process that’s the result of (enormous) discretionary authority. In April, Liam Goldrick noted that the New Teacher Project was simultaneously advising several states on RTTT and then commenting on the process (something he thought was unwise from an organizational standpoint).

So when I read a story with a single source commenting on the issue, where the source may have had business interests at stake and where the disclosure of that in the story was vague, and then the term “some say” with only that source as documentation, it looked odd. It was a good journalist quoting someone who is open about disclosure in every direct piece of writing of his I’ve read. And it wasn’t the larger point. But I don’t remember anyone correcting the impression earlier in the spring that TNTP had been a disinterested observer. But I could also have thought of a number of reasons why there weren’t more people quoted or more disclosure about Wetherbell (Rotherham’s firm): maybe Matus got the information late in the day and couldn’t reach more than Rotherham; maybe the material was in the submitted story and an editor chopped out additional disclosure; maybe Rotherham didn’t have access to the text of the local MOUs or didn’t have a copy of the state MOU and was relying on Matus’s over-the-phone description of “hey, this looks like it could be different, especially in Hernando.” But on the other hand (I think we’re on my fourth hand here), the failure to correct the stuff on TNTP is a lapse for education journalism more generally, and it has to stop. So I decided to note what I had observed, call it minor compared with the other issues, and go on. If it looks like I’m being hard on the Times, it’s because this local newspaper is one of the top papers in the country on education, and I think I can expect great reporting. But this is a minor error, I meant the observation as such, and I explicitly said so. If I were going to point out that the alleged transparency problem with Florida’s application is a distraction until better researched, maybe I need to be consistent and explicitly say my concerns along parallel lines were less important, nu?

My central point was that absent some more solid analysis of what the local MOUs actually meant and whether they conflicted with the application packet, the larger issues were not about procedure but the sustainability of whatever happened with RTTT, assuming it was beneficial. Here’s what I wrote this morning:

It’s a legitimate question to ask what the right balance is in collective bargaining on the scope of bargaining, on the relative power of the parties, and on state law that can essentially dictate terms and conditions of employment outside bargaining…. It’s also a legitimate question to ask about the commitment of parties to reform after the money runs out…. Those issues are still out there, and they’re out there whether or not a particular state has an MOU like Florida’s.

And here’s what Andy Rotherham wrote:

[T]here are two big outstanding questions on RTT that we won’t know the answers to for several years: First, how durable will the policy changes be?  Will states relax things when the money is gone and/or will “loser” states undo the reforms they put in place in an effort to win? Prize theory is built on the idea that the progress generated in an effort to win is built upon.  That idea has not been fully tested yet in the public/political sphere.

Surprise: we agree on the importance of that question! No, it’s not really a surprise. It’s just that a lot of electrons have lost their lives this week in what thus far looks like a nonstory.