Teachable Moment

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

IT'S APPARENT that some D.C. teachers union officials don't think much of the people they represent. How else to explain their objections to Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee speaking to teachers about pending contract talks? The suggestion that simply providing information is coercive belittles the people who each day are entrusted with that very duty.

Plans for Ms. Rhee to appear at a series of informational meetings sparked protest from hard-liners in the Washington Teachers' Union. As The Post's Bill Turque reported, the union's general vice president, Nathan A. Saunders, and board member Candi Peterson are urging teachers to boycott the meetings, using overblown rhetoric about the sessions being a tool for destroying the union. In truth, the real danger to the union lies in the reactionary politics of officials who are more concerned with protecting their entrenched interests than in what makes sense for teachers and their students. Mr. Saunders, for instance, has made no secret of his desire to unseat the union's reform-minded president, George Parker, and has unfairly suggested that by working with Ms. Rhee, Mr. Parker has ignored teachers' interests. Mr. Parker knows better than anyone else that if Ms. Rhee doesn't succeed in turning around the schools, the exodus of students will accelerate, meaning fewer jobs and less money for teachers.

Teachers should ask who benefits by shutting out Ms. Rhee. Certainly not teachers, who could receive some of the highest salaries in the country with the compensation plan she proposes. Under the proposal, teachers get a choice: Stick with the traditional pay scale with small raises, or forgo many tenure and seniority protections and get big money based on effectiveness in the classroom. It's understandable that changing tenure and seniority is unsettling. That's all the more reason for teachers to hear Ms. Rhee out on why she thinks this is a "win-win." Many misconceptions have circulated, such as that only teachers lucky enough to get "the smart kids" will do well. In the end, it will be up to the teachers to decide -- collectively -- whether to approve the contract and -- individually -- which pay scale to choose. They should wonder why those opposed to change want to keep from them the facts that would help them to make those decisions.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company