By Robert McCartney
Sunday, April 11, 2010; C01
It took her nearly three years, but D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has finally achieved something important enough to actually merit all the praise and hoopla that have made her the nation's most celebrated schools chief.
Rhee's tentative agreement with the Washington Teachers' Union is a genuine breakthrough, and not just for the District. Assuming that it gets final approvals, it makes the city's schools a national model for education reform. It gives her a chance to create the lasting change that she's said she wanted from the start.
In particular, the contract weakens teachers' seniority and tenure rights in innovative ways without eliminating them entirely. That makes it much easier to weed out ineffective teachers -- and bless Rhee and the labor leaders for doing it.
In return, teachers receive a 21 percent increase in base pay, new training programs and protections against instant or arbitrary dismissal.
Just as impressively, in negotiating the contract, Rhee showed that she was capable of maturing as a leader and learning from mistakes. She can still be stubborn and needlessly combative. But she made some compromises instead of continuing to try to impose her entire agenda on the school system all at once. The whole endeavor was in doubt in October when she fired hundreds of teachers in the middle of the school year.
"I think she understands now that she can't just go charging in and expect everybody to follow, that she has to work with the teachers," said Jack Jennings, president of the independent Center on Education Policy.
The contract is also a milestone for teachers unions. For years, critics have been skeptical when union leaders insisted that they were willing to make substantial changes for the sake of improving schools. Now WTU President George Parker and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten have signed a contract that delivers on those promises.
"This contract is a big deal. People can point to it and say lots of the individual reform parts in it are present elsewhere. But there's not another contract that has all of them together," said Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education, a national nonprofit group that supports school reform.
I'm happy to see it partly because I've been annoyed since Rhee arrived in 2007 that she was reaping so much glory before she'd actually accomplished much. Time magazine put her on the cover, and an education publication portrayed her in knightly armor as "D.C.'s Braveheart."
What had she done to deserve this? Largely, it was talk. Tough, rude, often self-righteous talk about the need to do whatever was necessary to improve education. It drew attention nationwide, even before actual change occurred.
Since then, Rhee has closed some schools with declining enrollment, a move that was long overdue. Test scores have risen, albeit from a very low base. The city has opened a batch of gleaming new schools, though much of the credit for that goes to Allen Y. Lew, the little-heralded executive director of the District's school modernization office.
Now Rhee and the union leaders have produced an agreement that raises realistic hopes for more far-reaching transformation. That could lift the District's public schools out of the bog of low achievement, where they've been mired for years.
The deal isn't final yet. But it seems likely to obtain needed endorsements from the city's financial office, the union rank and file, and the D.C. Council.
In one of the most important changes, principals can use performance rather than seniority in deciding which teachers to bring to their schools, or which to let go in case of a budget cut or falling enrollment.
Rhee is also pleased about adding a pay-for-performance program, funded by donations from private foundations. It's voluntary and available to teachers willing to forgo tenure protections.
A teacher who delivers top test scores in a low-income neighborhood in a needed subject area such as math or special education can earn as much as $146,000 a year. The top salary available now is $87,000.
The result is less ambitious than her original pay proposal. However, Rhee said that "what was important was that we were able to differentiate pay based on performance of individuals."
What do teachers get in return? First, there's the across-the-board pay increase, raising the average salary from $67,000 to $81,000 by 2012. Also, teachers rated "effective" or better are protected against being put on the street immediately if they lose their positions. One safeguard allows them to stay on the payroll with benefits for up to a year while they look for another job.
Looking at the long term, AFT President Weingarten saw another advantage.
"For years, everybody was trying to change the D.C. schools from outside the system -- with charters, vouchers, governance or divesting teachers legislatively of their rights. What this has done, through collective bargaining, is try to change the system from within," she said.
That's another way of saying that the union is taking a leap by joining the reform process rather than resisting it. The District's students will be better for it, and I'll say, "Way to go," the next time I see Rhee on a magazine cover.