The Public Deserves a Look at What Is Holding Up Education Reform in the District.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

SCHOOLS Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee made no secret of her aim to reshape the District's teaching force when contract talks started 18 months ago. Union leaders, for their part, said they were open to new ideas. Despite the seemingly endless talks, a money offer that would make D.C. teachers among the highest-paid in the country and intense mediation by a respected third party, an agreement has yet to be reached. It is a stalemate that threatens education reform in the District.

Kurt L. Schmoke, former Baltimore mayor and current dean of the Howard University law school, is mediating talks between school officials and the Washington Teachers Union. The first session was May 7 and, to date, there has been little sign that the two sides are any closer to agreement. They continue to meet, but if no progess is made, the possibility of an impasse looms, with the outcome likely to be decided by an outside arbitrator.

The key point of contention has been Ms. Rhee's proposal to loosen seniority as the determining factor in how teachers are assigned, retained and rewarded. In her vision, no teachers would have had to give up the lifetime employment guarantee of tenure, but teachers who volunteered to do so and who demonstrated their effectiveness in the classroom could earn exceptional salaries. It's telling that union officials refuse even to let rank-and-file members vote on such a proposal. Telling, also, is how national union leaders shouldered aside local union officials when it seemed a deal might be within reach. Ms. Rhee no longer contends with just local president George Parker, representing the interests of 4,400 D.C. teachers, but instead with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, her national agenda and the demands of 1.4 million members.

Maybe it's time for parents to get a look what's going on in these closed-door talks. More than pay scales are at stake. Every aspect of classroom life -- from the size of bulletin boards to teacher planning times to when principals can ask to look at lesson plans -- is being decided. Given that secrecy hasn't helped Ms. Rhee and Ms. Weingarten work out their differences, why not give the public more than a glimpse and some sound bites about the competing proposals? Each side claims to have a plan that will further the interests of students. Let them prove it.

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