“We’ve reached a low point” — Delaware and its teacher’s union no longer playing nice

It’s not an end to the Delaware Way, but there is a tension taking place in the state’s education landscape.

A little over five years ago, Diane Donohue, then the president of Delaware’s teacher’s union, sat between Governor Jack Markell and banking executive Marvin “Skip” Schoenhals on a stage in Washington, D.C. to co-present the state’s Race to the Top application. It was an arresting display of unity—a rare moment when the private sector, the government, and union leaders seemed to speak with one voice.

“I know, and our members know, how important it is to be part of this education reform effort,” Donohue said in her introductory remarks, before yielding the floor to then-Secretary of Education Lilian Lowery.

Soon after, Delaware became one of the first two states to win Race to the Top funding, and many cited cooperation between the state and the union as a leading reason why. “In Delaware you don’t have to choose between consensus and bold action,” Markell said after the triumph, which yielded more than $100 million in federal funding. “In Delaware, you get both.”

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Fast forward to the present.

At a May State Board of Education meeting, Christopher Ruszkowski, head of the state’s Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Unit, announced the suspension of a statewide teacher survey because the Department of Education and the Delaware State Educators Association (DSEA) couldn’t agree on what questions to ask. Moments earlier, DSEA president Frederika Jenner blasted the department over two proposed amendments to the teacher evaluation system.

In each case, the stakes were so small as to be hardly worth mentioning. But together they painted a picture of dissension. Once held aloft as a model marriage, relations between the Delaware Department of Education and the Delaware State Educators Association no longer appear cozy.

“We’ve reached a low point,” says DSEA president Frederika Jenner.

 Big issues, big questions

The result is gridlock. Be it big-picture policy questions or the content of a simple survey, the two most influential parties in Delaware education can’t seem to find common cause. “We are willing partners, but we are concerned about the quality of the partnership,” Jenner says. Indeed just two months ago, DSEA voted no confidence in the sitting Secretary of Education for what is believed to be the first time ever.

The discord comes at a time when the state faces political crossroads on issues such as teacher compensation, standardized testing, educator assessment, and district lines in Wilmington. Many now wonder whether the state can tackle any of those topics given the rift between union and administration.

“Without the support of the educators in the classroom how do you expect to ever make any substantive change,” says Valerie Woodruff, who served as the state’s Secretary of Education under Governors Tom Carper and Ruth Ann Minner. “How do you think you’re going to get this work accomplished? They’re the ones that can essentially make or break a change.”

Historic collaboration

Bad blood between education bureaucrats and teacher’s unions is nothing new. In Delaware, however, there has at least been a public perception that the two sides can collaborate.

“We didn’t always agree on everything, but we were able to work together on things that were of common interest,” Woodruff says. “It really was a good relationship.”

Jack Polidori, the DSEA’s legislative director during much of Woodruff’s tenure, agrees.

“It really was an extremely constructive relationship,” Polidori says. “We felt they were were pro-public-education and weren’t threatened by the presence of a teacher’s union.”

The dawn of Woodruff’s tenure coincided with major changes—both locally and around the country—in student testing, teacher accountability, and professional standards. Delaware implemented new state tests, as well as an educator evaluation system that persists—albeit in a revised form—today.

“It was as challenging a time as I have ever seen,” says Jacquelyn Wilson, who worked at the department of education under Woodruff.

Wilson recalls “lots of off-record conversations with DSEA’s leadership” during her tenure at the department, and says those conversations helped foster trust.

“A real communication breakdown”

Wilson now heads the Delaware Academy of School Leadership at the University of Delaware, a role in which she works closely with both the DSEA and Department of Education. Those off-record conversations, she says, are less common, a consequence of the department’s push to fast-track policy changes as it implements Race to the Top reforms.

“There started to be a real communication breakdown because there was so much change happening so quickly,” Wilson says.

Those changes include new standardized tests, a revamped teacher evaluation system, and the implementation of Common Core State Standards.

For Jenner, the Department’s sense of urgency has been alienating. New programs, she says, are presented to her as a “fait accompli,” rather than as ideas to be debated and shaped.

“It comes to us baked. It’s already done,” Jenner says. “That’s not what collaboration means.”

As officials in Dover seek light-speed progress, the Department of Education has itself experienced significant turnover. Mark Murphy, a relative newcomer to Delaware, signed on as Secretary of Education in 2012. Some of the Department’s highest-ranking officials—including the aforementioned Ruszkowski, Chief Accountability and Performance Officer Penny Schwinn, and Chief Academic Officer Michael Watson—had limited professional experience in the state before inheriting their current roles.

“I used to be able to name a lot of people down in Dover and I can’t do that anymore,” says Vicki Seifred, a longtime educator in the Red Clay School District and member of DSEA’s executive board. “I think that’s kind of sad.”

Unions stiffen

But if the reform-happy outsiders at the department are partly to blame for the change in relationship, so too is a growing recalcitrance on the union’s part.

“We’re taking a firmer stand for what we believe in,” Seifred says. “And I think we have to.It’s gotten to that point where we do have to take a stand.”

Unions across the country have begun to push back hard against education reformers, a position that often manifests as resistance to standardized assessments, charter growth, and tying teacher evaluation to student test scores. Last year, in fact, the National Education Association called for the resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Just across the river in New Jersey, the state teacher’s union has spent big on a television campaign designed to catalyze anti-testing backlash.

“Disagreements in Delaware reflect growing resistance by national unions to similar policies pushed by the Obama administration, so we’re not surprised those same debates are happening here,” said Alison May, the Department of Education’s lead spokesperson, in a statement. “We know that not everyone is happy with everything that we’re doing, including DSEA, and that’s partly because this work is really hard. But if we had to choose between making extraordinary progress together and avoiding controversy, we would choose progress for our students every time.”

For those who side with education reformers, union resistance often feels like self-preservation—a sort of foot-dragging meant to stall uncomfortable changes. Those who side with unions interpret that same resistance as an attempt to protect public education from top-down, corporate-style reformers who devalue teacher contributions.

“We obviously have a trust issue here”

The conflict is not new. Indeed it was raging well before Delaware won its Race to the Top money in 2010. Now, though, First State leaders can no longer pretend their state is immune to larger conflicts playing out nationally.

“We obviously have a trust issue here,” says State Senator Ernie Lopez, R—Lewes. “There’s obviously a disconnect. We need to open up the doors.”

Publicly, both the Department of Education and DSEA say they’re committed to collaboration and partnership. Jeff Tascher, DSEA’s executive director, believes the present tension between his union and the Department of Education will dissolve.

“There are times when things are good and things aren’t good,” says Taschner, who has been with DSEA in some capacity since 2000. “It’s an ebb and flow. So I struggle to characterize this as a relationship issue.”

Taschner blames Race to the Top for the current state of things. He believes the five-year grant created an “artificial timeline” for change that was bound to generate backlash. He also says Delaware has it better than other states, and that colleagues elsewhere still marvel at the fact that DSEA and the Department of Education regularly meet face-to-face.

“I’d tell a different story if we weren’t talking with each other,” Taschner says. He remains optimistic that the two sides can work amicably on big picture issues such as teacher compensation.

Others long-time education observers are less sanguine. Woodruff, the former Secretary of Education, sees a “them versus us” mentality developing that could preclude future collaboration.

“I’d like to see that greater respect return,” Woodruff says. “It’s very worrisome to me.”

Wilson, who once worked under Woodruff, says the current Department has worked hard to listen to parents, business leaders, and teachers. In other words, any ongoing tension owes not to lack of effort, but rather a lack of experience.

Wilson believes the Department’s zeal to get big things done in a short period of time has disrupted the usual consensus, and left DSEA feeling more like an obstacle than a partner. In the process, Delaware—at least on the education front—has lost some of the collaborative spirit that once made it a national model.

“There is a Delaware way,” she says. “And, you know, it’s a good thing. People envy us.”

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