IEA cries foul, but for all the wrong reasons.

The great American philosopher W.C. Fields once said that you can’t cheat an honest man.

Today I received a forwarded email originally sent by IEA Communications Director Charlie McBarron. Attached to Charlie’s email was a letter from IEA President Ken Swanson to USDE Czar Arne Duncan. It  is an angry letter responding to the failure of the Illinois Race to the Top application.

” As the secretary of education, you had an obligation to ensure the grants went to the right states,” said Swanson.

Good for Ken for getting right to the heart of the matter. This is exactly what is wrong with Race to the Top and what is wrong with the vision of our union leadership.

Our state union leadership had no business playing the game of which states were the right states. Every state has a right to fair and equitable funding from our federal government. All children have a right to a quality education regardless of whether they live in Illinois or Mississippi. Shame on Duncan for turning a democratic right of our children into a contest. Shame on the IEA leadership for playing that game.

The head of the federal agency responsible for education is moving reauthorization of NCLB in the direction of using competitive grants as the basis for funding American schools. He is using it to push policies like lifting charter caps and demanding state legislation requiring teacher performance evaluations based on student test scores.

That is what Ken’s letter should be complaining about.

Here’s the email:

From: McBarron, Charlie
Sent: Saturday, September 04, 2010 2:00 PM
Subject: To all IEA Board, Staff, GPAs

As you are aware, Illinois was not among the 2nd round recipients of federal Race To The Top (RTTT) grants that were announced by the US Department of Education.

As IEA was deeply involved in the development of the Illinois RTTT application, it was thought the attached letter might be of some interest to you.

The letter is from IEA President Swanson and Executive Director Soglin, and was sent this week to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.


Charlie McBarron
IEA Director of Communications


September 1, 2010

Mr. Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education

U.S. Department of Education

400 Maryland Avenue, SW

Washington, DC  20202

Dear Mr. Secretary:

We are writing to express our profound disappointment about the fact that Illinois did not receive a Race to the Top grant.  To be honest, we feel we have been misled.

Time and time again we heard that bold reforms, coupled with collaboration, would be recognized.  We also listened to the words spoken by you and President Obama; words stating that “working with unions and not doing something to unions” was the goal.  With that understanding, we engaged wholeheartedly, keeping front and center what we believed would help students and be fair to the adults as we pursued an aggressive but achievable agenda as part of the Race to the Top grant process.

We worked hard with the Illinois State Board of Education, our legislators, our management colleagues, foundations and advocacy groups.  We made progress, and we moved the needle on reform.  No external controversy, little drama, just a lot of internal hard work, commitment and the understanding that we were engaged in a process that would ultimately be fair, just and move education forward.

By all accounts, we submitted a competitive application.  Yet, we were denied a grant.

We are dismayed and disillusioned.  In our view, the process was unfair and fatally flawed.

We compare it to something we are very familiar with; grading students.  Imagine this scenario: A teacher gives an assessment.  She has distributed the grading rubric ahead of time and lets the students know that they will ultimately have two opportunities to pass.  Students who fail the first time will get plenty of feedback and will be told specifically how they can improve, thereby significantly improving their chances of passing the second time.  So, imagine that the students who fell short the first time get their feedback, seriously address their weaknesses (keeping intact what they were told were their strengths) and then fail again because another teacher graded this assessment and the two teachers did not talk to each other.  As the parent of that child, you would say that something very wrong had happened, and your child would rightfully be shouting, “This is not fair!”

This is exactly what happened to Illinois.  Several things went wrong:

  • There was no inter-rater reliability between the two sets of reviewers.

  • The reviewers did not have common working definitions of things like capacity, commitment and innovative schools.

  • The two sets of reviewers did not speak to each other so they could get on the same page about any state’s strengths and weaknesses.  Illinois addressed the major deficiencies highlighted in round one, kept our strengths and received lower scores in round two for some of the same things that were rated highly in round one.

This defies common sense.

We understand, and you have made it clear, that “it’s all about the points” and that our point score was simply not high enough to win.  Mr. Secretary, with all due respect, that is not good enough.

As the secretary of education, you had an obligation to ensure the grants went to the right states.  You had an obligation to make sure the reviewers were properly trained and understood what each applying state had done to improve after round one.  You needed to make it clear to them that true union/management collaboration, coupled with real reform, was a winning combination.

Illinois’ application deserved to be funded, because we were as poised and ready as any state to make this work.  Our involvement, along with our leadership, was a large part of why we should have been successful.  This was not reflected in our point score, and it makes us wonder whether the department truly values and understands how important unions are to successful deployment.

We remain focused on moving forward our agenda for improvement in education.  We will remain true to our organization’s mission of effecting excellence and equity in public education, as we advocate for education employees.  This was a wasted opportunity.

IEA leaders were courageous in their support of educational reform.  They stepped up to the challenge.  Unfortunately, the Department of Education did not.


Ken Swanson, President           Audrey Soglin, Executive Director


President Barack Obama

U.S. Senator Richard Durbin

U.S. Senator Roland Burris

Governor Patrick Quinn

Jo Anderson

Charlie Rose

Chris Koch

Dennis Van Roekel

John Wilson

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