Takeover Idea Out of Consideration, Rhee Says

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2009

Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee says the District is no longer exploring the idea of seeking federal legislation declaring the school system in a "state of emergency," a move that would have freed it from the obligation to bargain with the Washington Teachers' Union.

In a recent radio interview, Rhee said that the initiative, patterned after a state takeover of schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, was never seriously considered.

The proposal appeared in a statement drafted for a Sept. 22 news conference at which Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty were scheduled to present a series of steps to rid the District of teachers deemed ineffective. The steps, dubbed "Plan B," were based on existing powers the chancellor possessed and fell outside the legal scope of contract negotiations.

The news conference was canceled, and the draft statement was never made public. The Washington Post obtained a copy of it in November under the Freedom of Information Act.

Mayoral spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said Nov. 14 that the emergency scenario was one of several ideas under active consideration at the time. "The Mayor and the Chancellor will continue to keep these and all ideas on the table," Hobson said in a statement then.

But in a recent interview with WAMU (88.5 FM), Rhee said the proposal "was never something we were truly considering or that we had ever announced."

"That was reported, falsely really, based on a FOIA request that was done by a reporter, and what they did was FOIA all of the e-mails that had gone back and forth," Rhee added. "At some point, somebody did say this is a possibility for something that the District could do, but it was never something that was considered strongly and I think that it was totally misrepresented in the press."

Rhee did not respond to a request for comment about the radio interview.

In New Orleans, a state takeover placed most of the devastated city's 78 public schools in a special Recovery School District. Taking such an extreme measure in the District probably would have fueled heavy opposition in the Democratic-controlled Congress and from the Obama administration, which came to office with strong backing from organized labor. The plan was denounced by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, one of President Obama's most prominent labor supporters.

Two other ideas mentioned in the draft statement in September remain on the table, Hobson said. They would enable the District to leverage more control over the hiring and firing of teachers and diminish the number of unionized teaching jobs.

The statement said Rhee would explore local and federal legislation to restore power once held by the old 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 in 2007. The D.C. Public Charter School Board is now the sole authorizing body for charter schools.

It also mentioned the establishment of "autonomous" schools, operated by the District but provided with 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.

Hobson declined to discuss the measures because the union and the District remain in contract talks. "I can't comment on what's going on with respect to current negotiations," she said.

Until recently, Rhee had voiced little optimism about the future of the talks, which have been stalemated over her proposal to offer huge raises and performance bonuses in exchange for teachers' relinquishing tenure.

Rhee's comments to WAMU are part of a series of newly upbeat and conciliatory statements expressing renewed hopes for the talks. In the interview, she said that the revised contract proposal that she will soon submit is based in part on a series of meetings with teachers and will reflect her support for them.

"We feel very, very strongly and are very confident that we have addressed all concerns teachers have," Rhee said. In addition to "a very significant increase" in compensation, she said, the proposal will offer a new evaluation system that will treat them fairly -- one based not exclusively on standardized test scores.

"It treats teachers with the respect they deserve, looking carefully at their craft . . . based on a really robust set of multiple ways to look at effectiveness."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company