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Pay Package in Limbo
A smart proposal flummoxes the D.C. teachers union.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

MONTGOMERY County teachers have been told that they'll probably have to forgo the 5.3 percent pay raise they had been promised for next year because of a worsening economy. Fairfax County, which this year could afford only 2 percent cost-of-living raises for its teachers, has no idea what it will be able to provide with revenue shrinking. Given these grim realities, it's just mind-boggling that the leadership of the Washington Teachers' Union seems willing to thumb its nose at a proposal that would, at minimum, provide its members with a 28 percent pay raise over five years, plus $10,000 in bonuses.

D.C. teachers last got a raise in the 2006-07 school year and, despite months of intense negotiations with the Washington Teachers' Union, no agreement is in sight. The bold plan of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is two-tiered: Salaries as high as $130,000 would be available to teachers who forgo tenure and tie their pay to student performance, while those retaining tenure would still receive generous raises. No teacher with tenure would be forced to give it up under the voluntary plan.

Still, union leaders have balked, thus jeopardizing the $200 million that Ms. Rhee says she has raised from national foundations willing to fund the contract -- but only if the District revamps how teachers are compensated. Loss of the funds would mean that the city, facing a $131 million deficit, is on its own, which would probably mean, at best, a pittance of a raise for teachers. It's a sad scenario to envision, considering the challenges D.C. teachers face and the often-heroic work they do.

The union's refusal to put the proposal to a vote before its general membership is telling. Much misinformation about the proposal has been floated. Contrary to what has been said about the plan, there is apparently an appeals process for teachers who are terminated, as well as programs to aid in teacher development.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, criticized the plan in a letter to the editor of the New York Times even though, as she admitted to us, she hasn't seen the plan. The national affiliate had promised to stay out of Washington's debate, and Ms. Weingarten's letter, albeit in response to an editorial, indicates that more is at stake than the paychecks of 4,000 District schoolteachers.

In seeking to reward teachers for how effective they are in the classroom rather than how long they've been in the classroom, Ms. Rhee has launched a frontal assault on seniority, a touchstone of organized labor that has served union prerogatives at the expense of education interests. Indeed, that might explain why the proposal hasn't been put to a vote: It just might pass.

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