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Published: Thursday, 3/24/2011

Going nuclear

FRANCINE Lawrence has dropped a bomb on Toledo Public Schools that threatens to dash the hopes and futures of thousands of the district's students. That the president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers is holding children hostage to advance the interests of her union's most-senior members is not especially surprising, but it is dangerous.

Ms. Lawrence told the Ohio Department of Education last week that her union is backing out of its participation in the federal Race to the Top program. That decision, if it stands, could cost TPS $10.8 million in federal aid this year, $31 million over the next three years, and potentially millions more in other grants.

The purported provocation for Ms. Lawrence's overreaction occurred two weeks ago. Schools Superintendent Jerome Pecko notified her and other union leaders he was canceling several district programs the teachers union supports, including the Teacher Review and Compensation System and the Toledo Plan, because of budget constraints. TPS faces a $37 million revenue shortfall.

Yet when TPS — including Ms. Lawrence's union — agreed to take part in Race to the Top, it was clear that both of these programs would have to be reworked to meet federal guidelines that require teacher evaluations to be based in part on student performance. District officials say they will keep other aspects of the programs in new forms.

Mr. Pecko told The Blade editorial board yesterday he was required by the terms of the TPS contract with the teachers union to send the cancellation notice. Board of Education President Bob Vas­quez added: "We said that we would reconfigure [the programs] within Race to the Top."

The immediate result of Ms. Lawrence's pre-emptive strike is that the district's Race to the Top funds have been frozen. How long before the state, which is administering the money, decides to give the $10.8 million to other school districts is anyone's guess. But if this impasse is not resolved quickly, TPS could find itself in a race to the bottom.

The loss of the federal money would harm the district's efforts to carry out its new reform plan. But Mr. Vasquez insists that initiative will move forward. "This is really about the students," he said.

The timing of the union president's display of brinkmanship is hard to fathom. It's worth noting, though, that talks between the school district and union on a new contract have just begun.

Schools don't exist for the benefit of teachers. Rather, they exist to educate students. TPS parents and taxpayers, as well as administrators, must establish this priority clearly.

Ohio Department of Education Assistant Superintendent Michael Sawyers has offered to meet with district and union officials to resolve the dispute and keep Toledo in Race to the Top. Ms. Lawrence should take advantage of this opportunity to step back from the brink.

In the 1973 movie comedy Sleeper, Woody Allen's character is transported to the future. He learns that the old world was destroyed when Albert Shanker, a teachers union leader in New York, got his hands on a nuclear warhead.

If Ms. Lawrence proceeds on her present course, the future will belong to Gov. John Kasich. She will strengthen his dubious case for why he believes public employee unions' collective-bargaining rights must be obliterated. Is she prepared for that fallout?



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