An education setback in Charm City

Monday, October 18, 2010

NO DOUBT the resounding rejection of a new teachers contract in Baltimore is embarrassing to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The same day he was touting it as a model of how collaboration with the unions drives reforms, the city's teachers were saying no to the labor pact. Mr. Duncan -- and others who hyped the tentative contract as groundbreaking reform -- have more than one cause to be red-faced. Not only did the contract fail, but education officials accepted less change than is needed in the evaluation, assignment and compensation of teachers in their attempt to win union support.

Members of the Baltimore Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, rejected the proposed accord by a vote of 1,540 to 1,107. Mr. Duncan hailed the proposal as revolutionizing how teachers are paid as he announced plans for a national conference on labor-management collaboration. There is no question the proposed contract would be a distinct improvement over the current pact. It would shift a lockstep pay structure based on seniority to take teacher effectiveness into account. It also would allow more school-based decisions. The rejection by the rank and file is a setback, and we hope that Baltimore's respected superintendent, Andrés Alonso, who has done much to improve the troubled public schools, perseveres in his efforts to win approval.

However, it's farfetched to hold the proposal out as a groundbreaking model for the nation. Performance pay, for example, would not be tied exclusively to student achievement; teachers would get extra pay through professional development or even by being union representatives. The contract also does not attack the pernicious effects of seniority and tenure rules, union prerogatives protected by Maryland law.

The real model for national reform is the Washington, D.C., teachers contract negotiated by Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. It took her three years and scads of money, but she got union leaders to agree to rules that prevent the last hired from being the first fired, empower principals and reward teachers most capable of lifting student achievement. That Mr. Duncan chose to overlook the District and its critical reforms in his paean to the teachers unions and the importance of collaboration sends the message that process -- and politics -- matters more than results. By the way, the D.C. contract passed by an overwhelming vote.

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