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In D.C., a teachers union's timid counteroffer on reform

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

THE UNION representing D.C. teachers has submitted a new contract proposal in hopes of reviving stalled negotiations. If the plan is as timid as early accounts suggest, there's not much to talk about. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee must not waver in her determination to get a pay system that rewards teachers for the job they do, not how long they've done it.

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The counterproposal submitted last week by the Washington Teachers' Union, in concert with its national parent, is heavy on improving professional training for teachers but makes no mention of the merit pay provisions that are at the heart of Ms. Rhee's bold plan. Under the chancellor's proposal, D.C. teachers could earn as much as $130,000 a year if they voluntarily elected to forgo tenure and tied their compensation to the achievement of their students. Teachers who opt to retain their tenure would receive smaller, but still substantial, raises -- though the worsening economy is likely to reduce the raises teachers could have won if their union had allowed them to vote on a proposal months ago.

A summary of the union's new plan that was made public cites some encouraging proposals on teacher development and support and a plan for school-wide financial incentives. Nothing wrong with that idea: In fact, Ms. Rhee over the past two years initiated such a program, handing out nearly $2 million to staffs -- from custodians to principals -- at schools that showed dramatic gains in student achievement. But rewarding a group is no substitute for the ability to recognize individual teacher merit. Teachers are the single most important factor affecting student achievement, so why would you not want to compensate your best performers, provide incentives for others to improve and get rid of those who don't produce?

It's worrisome that this counterproposal seems to reflect none of the progress made during 10 months of negotiations between the local union and Ms. Rhee, which came close to producing a tentative agreement. Why is tenure off the table? Where are the green and red pay scales? How come the union wants to fiddle with the 90-day plan to rid the system of bad teachers? Has progress in all these areas been sacrificed to the national American Federation of Teachers? D.C. teachers have been without a contract since the fall of 2007. It's time they get a chance to vote on Ms. Rhee's visionary ideas for change.

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