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Rhee Seeks Tenure-Pay Swap for Teachers

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By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 2008

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is proposing a contract that would give mid-level teachers who are paid $62,000 yearly the opportunity to earn more than $100,000 -- but they would have to give up seniority and tenure rights, two union members familiar with the negotiations said yesterday.

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Under the proposal, the school system would establish two pay tiers, red and green, said the union members, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are confidential. Teachers in the red tier would receive traditional raises and would maintain tenure. Those who voluntarily go into the green tier would receive thousands of dollars in bonuses and raises, funded with foundation grants, for relinquishing tenure.

Teachers in the green tier would be reviewed yearly and would be allowed to continue in their jobs only if they passed an evaluation and boosted students' test scores, the union members said.

Under Rhee's proposal, raises to the green tier would be more than the 19 percent increase over five years she is proposing for all teachers, the union members said.

They said teachers are opposed to giving up seniority and tenure, no matter the size of their raise, and probably would reject such a proposal.

"You may be trading off your future, your tenure, your job security," a union member said. "When you trade that, it seems to me you're not getting much."

Rhee, who declined to comment yesterday because of the ongoing negotiations, has said she wants a contract that would "revolutionize education as we know it." She also has said she wants to improve instruction by ensuring that the District "has the most highly compensated and competent" teachers in the country.

Education experts who follow teacher contract issues said that D.C. teachers would be among the highest-paid educators in the nation under Rhee's plan and that a proposal eliminating seniority and tenure would be groundbreaking.

"Fixing teachers' contracts is a high priority everywhere," said Bryan Hassel, co-director of Public Impact, an education research and consulting organization in Chapel Hill, N.C. "If Rhee accomplishes this, it would be earthshaking reform that would have implications everywhere."

Rhee can restrict seniority rights through a little-used District law that allows principals to diminish seniority rankings and use them among several other factors -- including evaluations, military service and whether the teacher is in a high-demand area such as math or special education -- to make changes during staff cuts.

The law was aimed at addressing "bumping rights," which allow senior teachers losing their positions during cutbacks to displace less-experienced peers at other schools.

"Bumping rights had been viewed as a problem for those of us trying to get quality teachers in the classroom. But we knew it was a challenge getting it out of the contracts," Kevin P. Chavous, who was on the D.C. Council when the law passed, said in a recent interview. "Even after the law was passed, superintendents operated under the assumption that bumping rights were still there."

The union members said Rhee wants to get seniority out of the contract so that it will no longer be a factor in the legislation.

The two union members said Rhee wants to use donations from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and the Broad Foundation, in part, to pay for the raises and bonuses. Officials from the Gates and Broad foundations would not comment on proposed future funding.

Megan Matthews, a Michael & Susan Dell Foundation spokeswoman, said the foundation has had general discussions with D.C. school officials but has not committed funds to the teacher contract.


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