Union Chief Weighs In On Rhee's Comments

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. (May 2008 Photo By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The president of the American Federation of Teachers said yesterday that a recent op-ed article written by D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee represented "an apology" to instructors and reflected a conciliatory tone that she has recently struck in contract negotiations.

Federation President Randi Weingarten, who heads the 1.4 million-member parent organization of the Washington Teachers' Union, spoke yesterday to Washington Post editors and reporters about the labor talks, which began 15 months ago. The talks have stalled over union opposition to the chancellor's proposals to dilute tenure protection and link individual teacher pay and job security to improved student achievement.

The bargaining has been closely watched by educators and policymakers as a potentially precedent-setting confrontation between the politically influential teachers union and Rhee, who in the past has questioned the union's commitment to improving public education.

Yesterday, a spokeswoman for Rhee said her Post article "was not an apology but a clarification" offering a fuller view of the chancellor's opinion.

Weingarten said she had "a constructive meeting" with Rhee on Friday but would not discuss the details. She said that the chancellor's general approach to teachers has changed markedly since October, when she announced that she would exercise her power to place underperforming instructors on intervention plans that could result in dismissal if their work does not improve. A month later, Rhee also unveiled a five-year plan that called the overall quality of the District's teaching corps "unacceptably low." It said that while some teachers might improve with help, the school system would "identify and transition out a significant share" of instructors over the next two years.

"I think we've gotten mixed signals," Weingarten said. "But the more recent signals have been more conciliatory."

Weingarten cited Rhee's Feb. 9 op-ed piece in The Post, in which Rhee said that while she was saddened and outraged by the District's poor academic performance, she did not blame teachers.

"I have talked to too many teachers to believe this is their fault," wrote Rhee, who said she will soon submit a revised contract offer to the union. "I know they are working furiously in a system that for many years has not appreciated them."

Weingarten said Rhee was clearly reaching out to teachers. "The letter in the paper the other day was an apology, basically," Weingarten said.

Dena Iverson, Rhee's spokeswoman, said of the article, "The chancellor took the chance to communicate her thoughts on teachers in full, which had previously only been reported partially. Her position has not changed."

Weingarten's remarks come as the union organizations campaign to establish the contract proposal, submitted to the District on Jan. 31, as a progressive document that promotes the interests of schoolchildren. The initiative includes radio spots promoting the plan as "groundbreaking."

Union officials said they intended the plan as a message to Rhee that they are serious about collaborating to improve District schools. WTU President George Parker said in a recent interview that a confidentiality agreement with the District prohibited him from discussing the proposal in detail. But he did offer general descriptions of the package.

Parker said the union remains opposed to Rhee's plan for a two-tier salary system in which the largest pay increases and performance bonuses go to teachers who agree to relinquish tenure for a year, exposing them to dismissal at will by the District. He said the union was prepared to support individual merit raises for teachers, but only if Rhee is willing to work with the union on developing a fair evaluation system.

The union has proposed creation of an "improvement zone" of low-performing schools, where student achievement would be raised by reducing class sizes, focusing intensively on language and literacy, and granting an unusual level of autonomy to teachers and administrators.

The concept has been pursued, with varying degrees of success, in Miami, New York and Chicago, where Education Secretary Arne Duncan, then school system chief executive, worked with the teachers union to form "Fresh Start" schools. Parker said the union was ready to work with Rhee to help launch the effort.

"We're willing to be flexible to turn around low-performing schools," Parker said. "There are a number of blueprints for how to turn around urban school districts. We've got to try some new stuff."

The union is also seeking a commitment from the District for a minimum level of supplies and equipment in each classroom. Too often, Parker said, teachers in low-income neighborhoods are forced to scramble for basic instructional tools.

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