By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 2009
When the District's teachers union unveils its long-awaited contract proposal this month, a head-to-head struggle will be fully joined between two of public education's most prominent and strongest-willed leaders: Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.
At stake is not only the fate of Rhee's ambitious attempt to transform the District's failing schools, but also a significant early battle in a nationwide campaign by a new generation of urban school reformers. They want to dramatically elevate the quality of teaching and learning, even if the effort sparks labor tensions with politically influential teachers unions. That could produce ripple effects for the Obama administration, which enjoyed heavy union support in last year's election but has also placed school improvement high on its domestic agenda.
The 14-month struggle between Rhee and the 4,000-member Washington Teachers' Union, AFT's local affiliate, is a potential watershed for Weingarten. She wants to protect her 1.4 million-strong national membership from the spread of what she calls Rhee's "scorched earth" approach and roll back the broad public perception that teachers unions are an impediment to reform because they harbor mediocre or incompetent instructors.
In speeches and commentary, Weingarten has outlined a view of how teachers should be paid, evaluated and, if need be, fired that is fundamentally different from Rhee's. She has denounced Rhee's core objective to weaken tenure protections and link individual pay and job security directly to student achievement. She asserts that such systems breed resentment and discourage the kind of collaboration among instructors that truly improves schools. What she doesn't explicitly say is that individualized rewards for performance could also pose a threat to her union's future.
For the former labor lawyer, elected to the presidency of the nation's second-largest teachers union in July (the National Education Association has 3.2 million members), it will be a high-profile test.
"Randi is the most important teachers union figure in the country today," said Thomas Toch, co-director of Education Sector, an independent Washington think tank. "She's a pivotal figure in this conversation. The stakes are very high for her in D.C."
Weingarten declined yesterday to discuss specific aspects of the proposal, drafted by AFT staff in collaboration with the WTU, because Rhee has not seen it. In general, she said, it would allow removal of underperforming teachers in "humane, fair and fast ways." She said it would also provide more support for District teachers and opportunities for them to grow professionally.
"The best way to protect and represent teachers is to give them what they need to get the job done with kids," Weingarten said. "When parents feel like teachers are doing a good job, that's the win-win situation."
Contract talks between the WTU and the District have been stalled for months over union opposition to Rhee's grand bargain: In exchange for unprecedented salary increases -- to as much as $130,000 a year for senior teachers -- educators must relinquish tenure protection for a year, exposing them to possible dismissal. (Teachers who want to retain tenure would receive smaller pay increases.)
The alternatives to a deal with Rhee are not attractive. Should the talks collapse and both sides declare an impasse, the dispute would first go to the District's Public Employees Relations Board, which attempts to resolve labor-management disputes in D.C. government. If the board deems the impasse to be legitimate, it is referred to a mediator, usually at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. If mediation fails, the board can arrange for binding arbitration.
What legal and political direction the struggle will take remains unclear. In Rhee, Weingarten confronts an adversary whose antipathy toward teachers unions has led her to explore the possibility of legislation empowering the District to declare a New Orleans-style "state of emergency" for the D.C. schools system. That would allow the government to establish a new system of nonunion charter schools, obviating the need to bargain with teachers.
Rhee, who did not respond to a request for comment, told a group of education reporters in the fall: "People tell me the unions are an inevitable part of this [school reform]. My thing is, what has that gotten us so far? All the collaboration and holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya'?"
In Weingarten, Rhee is dealing with a union leader who comes to the dispute with a reputation as a pragmatic dealmaker and a record of selling teachers on ideas they have traditionally disdained.
As head of New York's United Federation of Teachers, she negotiated a series of agreements with Chancellor Joel Klein that includes merit pay for teachers based on schoolwide performance, longer work days, increased city control over transfers and assignments, and the creation of "lead teacher" positions to mentor struggling colleagues. Weingarten has also overseen the founding of two union-sponsored charter schools in Brooklyn.
"She takes a broader view of what's good for public education and students as a whole," said Richard Kahlenberg, a fellow at the Century Foundation and author of "Tough Liberal," a biography of Albert Shanker, UFT founder and AFT president from 1974 to 1997. Shanker was an early champion of charter schools and other ideas that figure prominently in today's education policy debates, such as tougher accountability measures for teachers.
Kahlenberg said he sees Weingarten, 51, "very much in the Shanker mold as a teacher unionist who is also an education reformer."
The new proposal could include variations on some of the ideas Weingarten supported in New York. What's uncertain is whether she will push the envelope far enough to suit Rhee. The chancellor has pledged to replace a significant chunk of the District's teacher corps, and her measures to date -- closure of 23 under-enrolled schools, the firing of more than 40 principals and 200 teachers, and the placement of more than 150 other instructors on 90-day probationary programs -- have generated enormous expectations among some school reform advocates. They want the high-velocity change to continue.
"There are a lot of people in the reform community who want her to wipe the floor with Randi," said one Democratic education activist who asked not to be named so he could speak candidly.
The record suggests that Rhee and Weingarten are far apart on core issues. Weingarten has supported merit pay based on schoolwide performance only and points to the program underway in about 200 New York schools. It is similar to one established by Rhee and the WTU that awards cash bonuses to staffs at schools posting the most dramatic gains on standardized test scores.
But the D.C. program is based almost exclusively on scores, an emphasis opposed by Weingarten, who wants to see other schoolwide metrics, such as attendance, taken into account. It's also not clear that evaluating teachers as a group will be sufficiently groundbreaking for Rhee or for the private foundations -- yet to be publicly named -- that she says have committed $100 million over five years to underwrite the huge raises she has proposed.
Weingarten has said she is willing to modify tenure but not abolish it, saying teachers need due process protections against unfair dismissals. But she has proposed making tenure more difficult to achieve by establishing peer assistance programs in which master teachers help struggling colleagues improve and counsel others out of the profession. Rhee maintains that tenure serves only adult interests, with no educational benefit to the District's 46,208 students.
Weingarten also faces a different political environment in the District. As head of New York's powerful 200,000-member UFT, she is a major player in municipal and state politics. Her name even surfaced on lists of Gov. David A. Paterson's possible appointees to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The concessions Weingarten made on merit pay and transfer rights were also accompanied by lucrative financial packages for teachers -- 43 percent in pay increases between 2002 and 2008 -- and a sweetened pension plan that allows instructors to collect full benefits at age 55 with 25 years of service.
Her stature in District politics is less imposing, and her power is more indirect. Although she leads the parent AFT, she does not have direct control over the affairs of the Washington Teachers' Union, which is headed by George Parker. And although she conducted contentious and often bitter negotiations with Klein -- a mentor of Rhee's -- and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, their relationship remains functional and even cordial. At Weingarten's National Press Club speech in November, Bloomberg delivered a warm and gently humorous introduction.
Weingarten lacks the same connection with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. Her history with Rhee, with whom she has met twice to discuss the District situation, is rocky. The New Teacher Project, the nonprofit organization Rhee founded and ran before becoming chancellor, wrote a report critical of the 2005 UFT contract Weingarten negotiated with New York. That pact ended seniority transfer rights, or "bumping," in which veteran teachers seeking positions in other schools could dislodge less senior teachers and force principals to accept them. But the New York plan also resulted in the city paying $81 million in salary and benefits to teachers unable to find positions at other city schools.
"Randi felt for years that the New Teacher Project went out of its way to poke the UFT and make trouble for them," said Rick Hess, an education scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who knows both women.
Weingarten must also contend with ambivalence within the WTU's leadership and rank-and-file over her intervention. There is lingering resentment dating to AFT's two-year takeover (2003-05) after the financial scandal that sent President Barbara A. Bullock to prison as the central figure in the theft of more than $4 million in union funds.
Parker did not respond to an interview request, but other WTU members said they regard Weingarten as a plus.
One Northwest Washington teacher, who asked not to be named to avoid alienating Parker or Rhee, said, "I see any intervention on their part as collegial."