03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Spurring Union-Led Innovation: Public School Entrepreneurs

Today we announced the first recipients of the AFT Innovation Fund grants. When we created the Innovation Fund last year, we asked local and state affiliates to think big, think boldly and think in ways that might go beyond their usual comfort zone -- and they did. And we promised to back up our members' good ideas with resources to help make them a reality. These grants will support educators, their unions and their partners as they take the lead to improve teaching and learning in groundbreaking ways. Some people will be surprised that these proposals come from teachers unions. But the truth is that our local and state affiliates are not afraid to take risks and share responsibility for student success. Here's what I mean by taking risks: Like entrepreneurs, we're taking a risk that we hope and suspect will succeed. We're not averse to change -- we're leading change.

We are public school entrepreneurs, trying new approaches, taking some risks and looking for promising ventures -- all in the quest to improve student learning.

Our efforts are magnified by the tremendous backing of our fellow education entrepreneurs -- five of America's most prominent private philanthropic foundations. Together with a substantial investment from the AFT, our grantors have brought our initial funding to $3.3 million. I want to recognize -- and thank -- our foundation partners. Funding for the AFT Innovation Fund comes from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the members of the American Federation of Teachers.

In a speech last year at the National Press Club , I said that, with the exception of vouchers, which drain vital resources from public schools, everything is on the table in terms of reform, as long as it is good for kids and fair to teachers. Fairness, for us, is a proxy for engagement, respect, stake and then ownership. Fairness means providing us the tools and conditions we need to educate kids.

The grant applications we received show that this openness I expressed at the National Press Club extends to our affiliates. There is nothing easy about what these unions are proposing to do. Yet look at how many of our affiliates took us up on the challenge. We received 126 letters of interest for these first AFT Innovation Fund grants. The field was narrowed to 15 applications with the greatest potential. After an extensive review process, we arrived at the grant recipients we are announcing today.
Drum roll, please--the recipients of grants through the AFT Innovation Fund, in alphabetical order:

The ABC Federation of Teachers in Los Angeles County, which proposes to build on its successful partnership with the district, moving collaboration and decision-making to the schoolhouse for 10 high-needs schools.

The Broward Teachers Union in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which proposes to develop a new compensation plan for education professionals based on multiple measures of student learning.

The Illinois Federation of Teachers, for a proposal to design and pilot a new collaborative contract-negotiating model for charter schools.

New York State United Teachers and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, which proposes to create a more meaningful evaluation system for educators.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which proposes to create 10 new community schools that will provide additional support for students.

The Saint Paul (Minn.) Federation of Teachers, which proposes to develop CareerTeacher, a new grow-your-own approach to teacher recruitment.

The San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, for its proposal to develop a forward-thinking plan to increase enrollment and create in-district charter schools.

Today marks day one of bottom-up education reform, and these AFT Innovation Fund winners represent that kind of reform at its best.