D.C. teachers' contract holds benefits for students and teachers.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

OVERWHELMING approval by D.C. teachers of a new contract caps nearly three years of high drama marked by bitter negotiations, political recriminations and budget uncertainty. But rather than an ending, the labor pact -- which still must be approved by the D.C. Council -- represents what could be a beginning in building and retaining a more effective teaching force. That's a credit to the tenacity of Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and also to the willingness of the union's rank and file to embrace her aggressive but common-sense reforms.

Members of the Washington Teachers' Union voted 1,412 to 425 to approve the agreement that would give them generous pay raises while modifying long-held prerogatives. Seniority and tenure would no longer protect bad teachers; effectiveness in the classroom would be the standard by which teachers are judged. The fact that the vote was so lopsided in favor of the contract should serve as a rebuke to those who saw Ms. Rhee as unwise in her pursuit of the changes. It raises the question of why union leaders took so long to allow these issues to be voted on. Undoubtedly teachers welcomed the 21.6 percent base pay increase over five years, with the possibility of more for those who volunteer for a merit pay program. But we'd guess many teachers also share the goal of righting a troubled system and welcome a framework that rewards quality and hard work.

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray said he will urge his colleagues to follow the teachers' lead and give final approval as soon as possible. The $140 million, five-year contract comes at a fiscally challenging time for the District -- other employees are being asked to forgo step increases. But Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who has made education reform a bulwark of his administration, rightly set aside the funds needed for the contract, while Ms. Rhee managed to raise money from private foundations willing to underwrite the early years of the merit pay program.

The generous pay provisions in the contract unfortunately have engendered resentment in some parts of the charter school community, where there is a belief that charter schools are slighted when public money is apportioned. We were glad to hear charter school leaders recently distance themselves from talk of possible legal action to upend the contract; the reforms embodied in the pact are too important to become subject to a turf battle. Charter leaders are right, though, to point to inequities in how funds are appropriated, particularly for facilities. Smartly, the D.C. Council is moving to establish an independent commission on public education financing to examine this issue.

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