AFL-CIO PRESIDENT Richard L. Trumka took center stage Thursday at a well-orchestrated rally in downtown Washington to denounce the "cold, hard" tactics of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker wrote a letter that appeared on this page Friday saying that his organization has tried to collaborate with Ms. Rhee. There is the suggestion that Ms. Rhee's recent layoff of 229 teachers could dampen the chance of future cooperation.
Let's review the record to examine the plausibility of those charges.
More than 14 months ago , Ms. Rhee offered a contract to Washington's teachers that was unprecedented in its largess. The proposal would have provided teachers with, at a minimum, a 28 percent pay raise over five years, plus $10,000 in bonuses. They would have had to give up nothing in the way of job security to obtain the raise. All Ms. Rhee asked in return was the freedom to offer, on a voluntary basis, even more money to a subset of teachers, if they would agree to have their compensation linked to performance. Their evaluation would have been based on a number of factors, including, but not limited to, the improvement their students showed from the beginning of the school year to the end. Ms. Rhee -- who has been branded anti-teacher -- wanted to make the District's teachers among the highest paid in America, and she had managed to raise private funds to make it possible.
Washington's teachers might well have welcomed this generous offer -- who wouldn't? -- but we don't know because Mr. Parker and other union leaders never allowed them to vote on a proposed contract. Labor law barred Ms. Rhee from directly explaining to teachers what she had in mind. At one point, it seemed that Mr. Parker and Ms. Rhee were close to an agreement, but then the national leadership stepped in. Since Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, involved herself, another 10 months have passed, and Washington's teachers remain without a contract. Talks are said to be continuing.
So what is really the cause of the continuing rift between school and union leaders? Is it Ms. Rhee's blunt style and her budget-mandated reduction in force? Or is it that the union cannot abide, above all in the nation's capital, a contract under which schoolteachers -- like employees throughout the private sector -- might have their work judged, and their compensation awarded, in part on how well they do their jobs?
We sympathize with the children whose school year has been disrupted and of course with the teachers who have been fired. We don't begrudge the union's effort to fight for their jobs -- that's its job. But with thousands of teachers laid off nationwide, we wonder why the nation's union heavyweights chose Washington for their spare-no-expense rally. Could it be that the union couldn't stomach the notion that factors other than seniority -- such as how well students were being served -- helped determine which teachers would remain in the classroom?