Adrian Fenty's out, but can D.C. school reform still succeed?

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, September 20, 2010

Did school reform lose last Tuesday along with Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty?

Certainly the biggest opponents of school reform won. The teachers unions poured $1 million into the race to knock off the mayor, according to Politico, and they got their scalp.

Now, before you fire up the e-mails, let me quickly say: Teachers do heroic work, they know more than anyone else about what goes on in a classroom, and their unions have an honorable mission: defending the jobs and enhancing the pay and benefits of teachers, who deserve generous pay and benefits.

But union interests don't always coincide with public interests. How could they? Teachers want schools to get better. But their unions' primary mission is to protect their members.

As a result, teachers unions often oppose charter schools, because charter schools tend to be nonunion and tend to compete with traditional (unionized) public schools. They have vociferously opposed evaluating teachers on the basis of performance, because that could cause some teachers to lose their jobs. And when legislators debate how to spend tax money, unions will always plump for higher salaries and pensions.

The unions aren't without strong arguments on any of these. The independence of charter schools raises tough questions about how to ensure that they offer a good education. It's hard to evaluate teachers in a way that recognizes the complexity of their task without being too subjective. Sometimes putting more money into teacher pensions will be the best use of public resources.

But not always. And when it's not, you need political leaders with the independence to say so. Doctors know more about what goes on with their patients than anyone else, but I wouldn't give the American Medical Association exclusive control over health-care reform.

And unions don't speak for all teachers, any more than the AMA speaks for all physicians.

For much of Fenty's term, union leaders prevented their rank-and-file from voting on a contract that would make it easier for bad teachers to be fired and good ones to be rewarded. When political pressure finally forced a vote on a pact that preserved those core principles, Washington teachers overwhelmingly said yes. Undoubtedly some did so because they were tired of waiting for a raise. But many knew themselves to be talented and hardworking, wanted to be rewarded for it -- and maybe were tired of carrying incompetent or lazy colleagues.

The biggest difference between union leaders and Fenty was of expectation and accountability.

Union leaders argue that teachers shouldn't be blamed for the lack of progress made by poor children living in often broken homes without books or a computer. Again, they are right about the terrible and unfair disadvantages such children face.

But Fenty and his schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, argued that enough schools around the country (including, as it happens, in neighboring Montgomery County) were showing that poor children could learn to justify an expectation that all poor children would learn.

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