Teachers' Chief Is in the Hot Seat

George Parker will soon decide whether to bring a tenure package to the WTU for a vote.
George Parker will soon decide whether to bring a tenure package to the WTU for a vote. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 1, 2008

When Donnie Simpson's career on Washington radio was taking off in the early 1980s, his contracts were negotiated by a team that included his agent, an attorney, an accountant and his closest friend, a middle school math teacher named George Parker.

For all the high-priced help, Simpson said, "The best advice I always got was from George."

By 1992, when Simpson left WKYS for a six-year deal with WPGC that paid about $1 million annually, it was Parker who represented him at the table before a large contingent of station executives.

"He was outnumbered but never outmanned," Simpson said.

As president of the 4,000-member Washington Teachers' Union, Parker, 58, is now a central figure in a negotiation with far higher stakes. At issue is an offer from D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee that could transform teaching in the District and, perhaps, across the country: a pay scale that would garner many instructors more than $100,000 a year in salary and bonuses linked to student achievement.

Parker must decide, possibly before the end of the week, whether to bring the package to his members for a vote. Otherwise, both sides might declare an impasse, sending at least part of the dispute to mediation.

His problem is that Rhee's largesse comes with an assault on tenure, regarded by teachers as a fundamental protection against unfair dismissal and reviled by critics of public education as a safe harbor for ineffective instructors.

Tenured teachers who selected the "green tier" would have to return to probation for a year, risking termination. Those who didn't risk tenure could choose a "red tier," with lower, but still significant, pay increases and bonuses.

The talks have landed Parker in a three-front war. Rhee is pressuring him to deliver union approval of a plan that she says he signed off on. She has threatened, but never spelled out, a "Plan B" that she says will allow her to impose the changes without awarding huge pay increases.

Older members, many of them black women who have long been the backbone of the city's teacher corps, tell him that they are convinced that Rhee, a 38-year-old Korean American, wants to strip their tenure and purge them from the system. Parker said that Rhee is not targeting black teachers but that "racial fear" has become an issue he must address.

At the same time, newer, younger teachers, who have less use for unions and are more willing to take risks, are clamoring for the green tier.


Parker is not exactly serene about his situation but said such challenges come with the job.

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