D.C. and private donors should settle teachers contract differences

Friday, April 30, 2010

THE FATE of a groundbreaking contract for D.C. teachers has been caught in controversy over how to pay for it. Private foundations that have offered millions of dollars want to ensure that the money is used for its intended purposes; D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi wants to make sure the city doesn't get stuck with unexpected expenses. Both concerns are reasonable, but they need not be contradictory. With modest accommodations from all parties, the schools can move forward with a contract notable for its benefits to students as well as teachers.

At issue is some $64 million that private foundations have pledged to support a new contract with the Washington Teachers' Union. As is standard for private foundation grant agreements, there are conditions attached. Two seem to be of biggest concern: a provision that allows the funders to reconsider their support if there is a material change in school leadership and a requirement that schools meet certain targets of achievement. Mr. Gandhi naturally worries that the city could be handed the bill if, for instance, Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee loses her job as a result of this year's mayoral election and the foundations pull their funds. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty would retain her, but D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who has been critical of Ms. Rhee, is noncommittal.

But closer examination of the numbers reveals that the obstacles are not insurmountable. Only $21 million of the private funds is slated for the contractually obligated raises, and reportedly the foundations have agreed to provide $16.6 million up front, well before the mayoral election. The only conditions for the city to get that money is that the contract be ratified by the union membership and approved by the D.C. Council, not unreasonable demands. That leaves some $4 million, a manageable amount, to be made up. The rest of the foundation money is targeted mainly toward performance pay and, in the unlikely event that the foundations pull their support, the District would have the simple option of not providing such pay; it is not written into the proposed contract.

Other issues need to be resolved. The on-again, off-again surplus has caused confusion about school spending, and Mr. Fenty and Ms. Rhee need to present a clear picture of where they are getting the public money to fund the contract. Complicating the situation is a gloomy budget picture for next year, with some council members talking about the need for further cuts or new taxes.

But in a budget the size of the District's, the money can be found. The question is whether council members want that to happen. The proposed contract, if teachers vote to approve it, would go a long way toward improving education in this city and bettering the lives of its children. If the foundations and city officials acknowledge that, making it a reality will not be all that difficult.

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