A Watershed Labor Negotiation

By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, August 29, 2008

As we head into the Labor Day weekend, it is only fitting that we consider what may be the country's most significant contract negotiation, which happens to be going on right here in Washington between the teachers union and the District's dynamic and determined new schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee.

Negotiations are stalled over Rhee's proposal to give teachers the option of earning up to $131,000 during the 10-month school year in exchange for giving up absolute job security and a personnel-and-pay system based almost exclusively on years served.

If Rhee succeeds in ending tenure and seniority as we know them while introducing merit pay into one of the country's most expensive and underperforming school systems, it would be a watershed event in U.S. labor history, on a par with President Ronald Reagan's firing of striking air traffic controllers in 1981. It would trigger a national debate on why public employees continue to enjoy what amounts to ironclad job security without accountability while the taxpayers who fund their salaries have long since been forced to accept the realities of a performance-based global economy.

Union leaders from around the country, concerned about the attention the Rhee proposal has received and the precedent it could set, have been pressing the Washington local to resist. But Rhee clearly has the upper hand. The chancellor has the solid support of the mayor and city council, and should it come to a showdown, there is little doubt that the voters would stand behind her in a battle with a union already badly tarnished by an embezzlement scandal and deeply implicated in the school system's chronic failure.

Caught somewhat in the middle is George Parker, the Washington Teachers' Union's thoughtful new president, who genuinely understands the need to get ahead of the reform wave and move the union toward greater pay and greater accountability. Parker is already getting push-back from the local's older guard, which has seen superintendents come and go and remains suspicious that Rhee is out to fire everyone. At the same time, he has been frustrated by a strong-willed new superintendent who is demanding significantly more discretion in personnel and pay decisions without getting tied up in endless "due process" procedures.

At the moment, the biggest sticking point has to do with a one-year "probationary" period that even experienced teachers would have to go through if they volunteer to give up tenure in exchange for becoming eligible for up to $20,000 a year in bonus pay.

Union member Jerome Brocks probably spoke for many teachers when he told The Post that he found such a tradeoff "degrading and insulting" -- and I'm that sure for someone who has taught special education for 34 years, it probably feels that way. But when you weigh the potential damage to teachers' egos, self-esteem and economic security against the unfairness of dooming generations of District children to lifetimes of underachievement, that looks like a pretty easy choice.

Sure, there will be times when teachers will be treated in an arbitrary and capricious way if they give up their tenure rights. Guess what: It happens all the time in the private sector, where hiring, promotion and pay decisions are sometimes made with incomplete information, favoritism, or undue emphasis on one factor or another. But despite this imperfection, despite the numerous instances of unfairness and poor judgment, somehow the vast majority of Americans manage to find a job, move up the ladder and enjoy their work, and companies manage to operate successfully and turn a profit. Pretty incredible, huh?

The standard line from union leaders is that teacher pay, promotion or job security shouldn't hinge on such subjective criteria, but it should rest on solid objective standards, like years of experience or academic credentials. But when you suggest another objective measure -- standardized tests to gauge student progress -- their enthusiasm for objectivity suddenly disappears. You know the litany of complaints: Standardized tests aren't a good measure of achievement, they distort the teaching process, and in any case, it's unfair to use test results to evaluate teachers because lots of factors determine a student's progress.

So let's get this straight: Teachers say their careers and incomes are too important to be left to the subjective whim of managers, but also too important to be left to objective measures, such as standardized tests. A classic Catch-22.

The way out of this pedagogical thicket is pretty obvious: Teachers, like all workers, ought to be hired, fired, promoted and paid based on a combination of subjective and objective criteria that bear some relation to the ultimate purpose of the enterprise, which in this case means imparting to children the skills and knowledge they need in life. For years, teachers and their unions have been saying that's exactly what they want, but for years they've been unable to find an acceptable way to do it.

Rhee has now put forward an innovative proposal that finally delivers on the promise of paying good teachers what they deserve while demanding the accountability that frustrated taxpayers demand. It's not perfect, and there are surely risks involved. But the greater risk is for teachers in Washington and other cities to cling to a status quo based on tenure, seniority and deep distrust of management while students and funding continue to flow to charter and private schools that put the needs of children before the interests of adults.

Steven Pearlstein can be reached atpearlsteins@washpost.com.

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