Fenty, Rhee Look for Ways Around Union
Proposals Would Set Stage For School System Rebuild

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 2008

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee are discussing a dramatic expansion of their effort to remove ineffective teachers by restoring the District's power to create nonunionized charter schools and seeking federal legislation declaring the school system in a "state of emergency," a move that would eliminate the need to bargain with the Washington Teachers' Union.

If adopted, the measures would essentially allow the District to begin building a new school system. Such an effort would be similar to one underway in New Orleans, where a state takeover after Hurricane Katrina placed most of the city's 78 public schools in a special Recovery School District. About half of the district's schools are charters, and it has no union contract.

Pursuit of the ideas would intensify the considerable national attention that Washington has drawn as a staging ground for school reforms. The moves could force a major confrontation with the union and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, which has denounced the changes in New Orleans. The proposals also could place Fenty (D) and Rhee at odds with President-elect Barack Obama, who has praised their reform efforts but who also counts federation President Randi Weingarten as a major supporter in the labor movement.

Fenty and Rhee referred questions about the proposals to mayoral spokeswoman Mafara Hobson.

"The Mayor and the Chancellor will continue to keep these and all ideas on the table," Hobson said in a statement issued Friday evening. "As ideas are developed and considered there will be extensive consultation with numerous and various people."

The proposals first appeared in a statement drafted for a Sept. 22 news conference where Rhee and Fenty were scheduled to present a series of steps they could take under existing regulations to rid the system of teachers deemed ineffective. The steps, dubbed Plan B, would allow Rhee to bypass contract negotiations with the union. But the news conference was canceled and the draft statement was never made public. The Washington Post obtained a copy of it under the Freedom of Information Act.

The draft statement said Rhee will explore local and federal legislation to restore power once held by the D.C. Board of Education to create charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated. That authority lapsed with the mayoral takeover of the school system last year. It also mentioned seeking the ability to establish "autonomous" schools, operated by the District but that would have a higher degree of freedom for staff and parents to shape academic programs.

"Since charters and autonomous schools are not subject to the collective bargaining agreement, these schools would be better positioned to ensure quality teachers in the classroom," the statement said.

The statement also said Rhee will explore federal legislation "that declares DCPS in a state of emergency, given our status as the lowest performing school district in the nation." Such a declaration, it said, would free it "from the collective bargaining agreement and other constraints preventing the District from providing high-quality teachers to its students."

On Oct. 2, Fenty and Rhee presented Plan B without mentioning the proposals to seek authority to create charter schools or a federal emergency declaration.

Those ideas, however, clearly remain in play.

Rhee indicated as much at an Oct. 31 forum sponsored by the Aspen Institute, where she discussed her proposal to make teachers more directly accountable for student performance by offering large salary increases in exchange for rules that weaken tenure protections. Opposition to the plan has stalemated contract talks with the union, which has refused to bring the contract to its 4,000 members for a vote.

According to an account of the forum, written by Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt and published on Monday's op-ed page, Rhee said a "vast majority" of teachers want to be judged on how they perform and that some are saying, "Just let us secede."

Rhee, who was wearing a sheriff's badge at the Halloween meeting, said that making some schools independent could set up an "incredibly interesting" experiment. When an audience member asked if she would consider declaring a state of emergency, Rhee said, "We're researching all of our options."

Weingarten declined comment on the matter Friday. "We're not going to get involved in a public negotiation," federation spokesman George Jackson said.

Union President George Parker said he was not aware that Fenty and Rhee have such ideas under consideration. But he said any attempt to weaken the union would be vigorously fought.

"Any effort to circumvent collective bargaining will be met with serious opposition on the part of WTU and its members," he said.

Obama's election has triggered intense speculation in education policy circles about the future of education reform in the District, and the impact a new administration might have. In the closing moments of the final presidential debate, Obama praised Rhee as a "wonderful new superintendent" working with Fenty to overhaul the school system.

At the Aspen Institute forum, which occurred before the election, Rhee said the fate of her reform efforts could "depend on the fortitude of the administration."

Privately, union leaders said they regarded the chances of the District securing a New Orleans-style state of emergency from the federal government as remote, given Obama's victory and the heavy Democratic margins in congressional elections Nov. 4.

There is also scant evidence that Fenty and Rhee have attempted to build support for the idea with potential allies. A spokeswoman for Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said he has had no discussions on the matter with District officials. A spokeswoman for Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings also said she was unaware of any talks.

A phone message Friday to Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond, one of two leaders of Obama's education transition team, was not returned.

Union leaders said the proposal to revive the District's chartering power, now held exclusively by the Public Charter School Board, is of more concern. Tom Nida, charter board chairman, said he had no objection to the idea in principle but that it needed careful study.

"It's a logical step for her to take," he said of Rhee's idea.

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