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Long Battle Expected on Plan to Fire Teachers
D.C. Union Being Aided By National Organization

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 25, 2008

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and the Washington Teachers' Union -- aided by its national parent organization -- are digging in for what could be a protracted struggle over Rhee's plan to fire instructors deemed to be ineffective.

School officials have posted job openings for an unspecified number of "helping teachers" to counsel instructors who have received notice to improve or face termination. Principals have been asked to identify teachers who can be placed on the so-called 90-day plan, which gives teachers 90 school days -- or about five months -- to upgrade their performance. The helping teachers will also document all assistance given to instructors and report to central office administrators, according to the job description posted on the D.C. schools Web site.

The teachers union is gearing up to respond. In a letter to members earlier this month, WTU President George Parker said the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) will join the Washington local to "provide support and strategies" to instructors designated for the 90-day plan. Parker said this will probably come in the form of help from AFT and local union staff members who will work with targeted teachers to avoid dismissal.

"Our role for any teacher in the 90-day plan is to make sure they get the necessary support," Parker said.

School officials have declined to say how many of the city's 4,000 teachers they would like to replace. The 90-day provision has been on the books for years but has been difficult for school principals to administer. Paperwork, numerous binding deadlines for conferences with teachers and a series of required classroom observations are a major commitment of time. The helping teachers have also been a part of the evaluation system but are nearly always in short supply.

Rhee wants to reshape the city's teacher corps with instructors willing to tie job security to improved student achievement. Her proposal to boost salaries into the six figures, in exchange for a weakening of tenure protections, technically remains on the bargaining table as negotiations for a labor contract continue.

But union opposition to the plan, which requires teachers seeking top pay levels to go on probation for a year and risk dismissal if they do not meet performance standards, has significantly dimmed its prospects.

As a result, both sides are beginning to move the fight from the conference room into the schools.

In an August interview, AFT President Randi Weingarten said the national union was "not involved" in the Washington contract. But it has actually played a significant behind-the-scenes role, driven by the potential national impact of Rhee's salary plan -- especially its targeting of teacher tenure. An AFT national representative, George Bordenave, has been detailed to the Washington Teachers' Union offices for the past several months. The AFT also paid for a membership poll this summer that revealed opposition to Rhee's plan by a 3-to-1 margin. In large public gatherings of teachers, however, sentiment seems more evenly split.

Parker said in his letter that the local union is "working closely" with the AFT to formulate a response to Rhee's salary package. It is expected that the response will call for a larger District investment in developing the skills of teachers and less emphasis on their possible dismissal.

In an Oct. 8 letter to the New York Times, Weingarten called Rhee's salary plan one she "intends to impose upon teachers, not one she hopes to develop with teachers. And it is one that will, in effect, create a temporary work force of highly paid, transitory teachers who will spend much of their time looking over their shoulders at one another -- not at the children in front of them."

There is a history of tension between Rhee and Weingarten, who also serves as head of the New York City teachers' union, the United Federation of Teachers. The New Teacher Project, the nonprofit organization founded by Rhee, wrote a report critical of a 2005 labor contract negotiated by Weingarten that eventually resulted in New York City paying $81 million in salary and benefits to teachers unable to find positions at other city schools after their jobs were eliminated.

George Jackson, an AFT spokesman, said Weingarten was not available yesterday for an interview. Rhee, asked whether she regarded the AFT's involvement as unwarranted or inappropriate, called it "disingenuous."

"The national union's claims that they have no involvement in local negotiations have been patently false," she said in a statement. "If the national [union] wants to insert themselves in this negotiation then they should be at least honest about their involvement."

Rhee is also developing a new teacher evaluation system, to be fully implemented next fall, based on test scores and other achievement benchmarks yet to be announced.

Parker told teachers in his letter that administrators have a right to set evaluation methods. But he also said that the union can contest the details if they will be harmful to teachers. Such a challenge would come in the filing of a complaint with the District's Public Employee Relations Board.

"The WTU will legally challenge any such process that is unfair to our members," Parker wrote.

Rhee said earlier this month that she had hoped to secure the changes she wanted and pay teachers well. But the $200 million in foundation money for the first five years of the program was contingent on a labor deal that broke new ground, she said.

When talks stalled, she announced a "Plan B" to bypass the negotiating table and use the 90-day provision and a new evaluation process to eliminate weak teachers.

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