Union Chiefs And Rhee Will Meet

Chancellor Michelle Rhee proposes bigger bonuses for teachers who give up tenure for a year.
Chancellor Michelle Rhee proposes bigger bonuses for teachers who give up tenure for a year. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten will meet in an effort to move the District and the Washington Teachers' Union toward a tentative agreement on a new contract, both leaders said yesterday.

Neither the time nor place were disclosed, although union sources said it could happen as early as tomorrow. Confirmation that Rhee and Weingarten, who heads the WTU's 1.4 million-member parent organization, are prepared to sit down together is a signal that the year-long contract talks might be reaching a decisive phase.

Who initiated the meeting is not clear. Weingarten mentioned the meeting in a question-and-answer session after a speech at the National Press Club.

"I've reached out to the chancellor," Weingarten said. In an interview later, she said she and WTU President George Parker "are anxious to meet with the chancellor. . . . There's been a lot of buzzing back and forth trying to find a date."

Dena Iverson, a Rhee spokeswoman, also confirmed that a meeting has been scheduled.

The negotiations are being closely watched by educators and union leaders nationwide. The scrutiny is driven by Rhee's proposal to award six-figure salaries and performance bonuses to teachers who agree to give up their tenure for a year, risking dismissal. Teachers unwilling to risk tenure would receive smaller, but still significant, bonuses and raises.

But talks have stalled over the issue of tenure, long regarded by many teachers as essential to job security, but condemned by many critics of public education as a safe harbor for ineffective instructors.

Both women have a considerable stake in the outcome of the talks. Rhee has said she has $200 million in commitments from private foundations to fund the first five years of the salary plan, along with improved professional development programs for teachers and other changes. But the funding is contingent on union approval of the plan. Given the darkening state of District government finances, it would be virtually impossible for Rhee to underwrite such a program without the private largess.

Weingarten, elected AFT president in the summer, has positioned herself as a reformer, willing to search for common ground with school officials on issues such as tenure and performance pay. Yesterday, in her first major policy speech as the federation's president, she said that with the exception of school vouchers -- which, she contends, siphon scarce resources from public schools -- "no issue should be off the table, provided it is good for children and fair for teachers."

She also cautioned school administrators and policymakers to reconsider their demonization of teachers unions as the main impediment to school reform.

"Think of a teacher who is staying up past midnight to prepare her lesson plan . . . a teacher who is paying for equipment out of his own pocket so his students can conduct science experiments. . . . These are the people the AFT represents. Make no mistake about it -- when you attack us, you attack them," she told an audience of union leaders, lawmakers and education policymakers, including Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who introduced her, and former North Carolina governor Jim Hunt.

Weingarten did not mention Rhee by name in her prepared comments. But during a brief interview after her speech, she criticized Rhee's consideration of measures that would release the District from its legal obligation to bargain with the Washington Teachers' Union. These include seeking revival of the city's ability to open nonunion charter schools, and legislation that would declare a post-Katrina-style "state of emergency" that would effectively allow Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to create a new, union-free school system.

The Washington Post reported Sunday that Fenty and Rhee are considering pursuit of the measures.

"I completely disagree," Weingarten said. "It's totally at odds with what I talked about today."

The two leaders have some history. The New Teacher Project, the nonprofit organization founded by Rhee, wrote a report critical of a 2005 labor contract in New York City negotiated by Weingarten, who still serves as president of the United Federation of Teachers, the city's teachers' union. It ended a longstanding practice that forced principals to accept the transfer of tenured teachers into their schools after losing their jobs at other schools -- a change Rhee would like to bring to Washington.

But the New York plan resulted in the city paying $81 million in salary and benefits to teachers unable to find positions at other city schools. The two clashed openly on the issue at a conference of school entrepreneurs in D.C. last May.

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