A pact for D.C. school reform

Thursday, April 8, 2010

THROUGHOUT the torturous contract talks between D.C. schools and teachers, Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee vowed she would not agree to anything that didn't further her efforts at reform. The innovative agreement announced Wednesday is evidence of that resolve -- and also of a gutsy willingness by local and national union leaders to make the changes that are needed if D.C. children are to do better in school.

Ms. Rhee and officials of the Washington Teachers' Union reached an accord -- subject to ratification by the full membership and approval by the D.C. Council -- that would provide base salary increases of 21 percent over five years. In return, school officials would get important tools to reward teachers who do well with children and hold accountable those who don't. This includes a performance-based bonus system to be instituted in the fall, greater autonomy in assigning teachers and better means of getting rid of teachers unable to produce results.

Turned on their head are time-worn traditions that protect adult prerogatives rather than student interests. No longer would teachers be paid solely according to the number of years served or degrees earned. Seniority and tenure would no longer determine where and how people are assigned, promoted or retained. The pernicious policy that permits unwanted teachers to be forced on principals would be abolished under a policy requiring mutual consent in school assignments. Minimally effective or ineffective teachers would lose job security. In addition to the generous pay raises -- which would give the District a competitive edge in hiring -- teachers would also benefit from a rich offering of new opportunities for professional development as well as enhanced policies on school security and discipline.

To finance the contract, Ms. Rhee was able to attract $64.5 million from foundations that hope the District will serve as a national model. This use of private money is sure to be closely examined by the union's membership and council members. Key will be whether the arrangement can pass muster from D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, who by law must certify whether there are sufficient funds to meet the contract's obligations. Debate is also likely to focus on whether it's fair for teachers to get big (albeit privately supported) raises at a time when other city employees are being asked to accept pay freezes. It's been three years since teachers received raises, and, more important, the District can't afford not to make this essential investment to improve its teaching force.

The contract talks, which stretched over more than two years, attracted national attention because of what was at stake -- a school system in the nation's capital that ranked among America's worst -- and the personalities of Ms. Rhee and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. We don't know what happened behind the closed doors of negotiations that also included local union president George Parker and an outside mediator, but it's clear this agreement wouldn't have come about without the considerable clout of Ms. Weingarten. Those who wonder -- and that's included us at times -- about whether she is serious about wanting to bring real reform to American education have only to read the 112 pages of this extraordinary agreement. The question, now, is whether the 3,800 D.C. teachers who will vote on this contract will follow that lead.

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