New D.C. teachers union chief says he'll be more aggressive

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 10:56 PM

The new president of the Washington Teachers' Union said Wednesday that he would cooperate with D.C. school officials in implementing the labor contract he vehemently opposed last spring. But Nathan Saunders also said he would be far more aggressive than his predecessor in ensuring that teachers' voices are heard when policy gets made.

"Where the contract requires collaboration, I absolutely will collaborate. Collaboration didn't become a bad word when I got elected," said Saunders, in an interview shortly before his formal installation ceremony at the American Federation of Teachers office on Capitol Hill.

Saunders, the former union general vice president, unseated incumbent George Parker in a runoff election Tuesday after a campaign in which he said Parker had failed to take a hard enough line in labor relations with then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

The election of Saunders has caused anxiety among supporters of Rhee's reform program. During a one-hour conversation, Saunders made it clear that he rejects the core of the educational world view held by Rhee and her successor, interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who have argued that the disadvantages produced by poverty, crime and family dysfunction can no longer be excuses for failing to raise academic achievement.

Saunders said he opposes the new IMPACT evaluation system because it effectively penalizes teachers for those social conditions. He also said annual growth in student test scores should not be used to make decisions about dismissals, as they are in some cases under IMPACT. Although D.C. law bars the union from bargaining over IMPACT with school officials, Saunders said he is committed to changing the system.

"Ever seen a law you couldn't change?'" he asked.

The teachers' contract, ratified by the union and the D.C. Council in June, includes at least 18 provisions that call for the union and the school system to act jointly. They include the planning and design of school turnaround efforts, the inclusion of special education students in general education classes, and improved teacher mentoring and professional development.

Saunders - who once decried the 21 percent pay increase negotiated by Parker as "blood money," contending that it was financed by the layoffs of 266 teachers in October 2009 - said that although he would collaborate, he would insist on "participation with strength."

"That means when teachers have a point of view, it's actually taken into consideration," he said. If it's not, Saunders said, he would not hesitate to take tougher measures. "Whenever confrontation will lead me to progress for the people I represent, I will engage in confrontation."

Parker, who had been union president since 2005, clashed with Rhee in the course of protracted contract talks. But he was regarded by city officials as a reform-minded union leader who recognized that teachers needed to assume more accountability for the quality of public education or risk being left behind.

"I've yet to hear Mr. Saunders articulate the importance of students in the process. His focus is singularly on job protections for teachers, not achievement for students," said D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who is interested in chairing the council's education committee when Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D) and council Chairman-elect Kwame R. Brown (D) take office next month.

Catania said he wished Saunders well but that "consumer confidence" in the public school system could be easily dashed by the perception that the union leadership is regressing.

"We are in a very, very, very serious point in our journey towards reform," he said. "We can have it all collapse if we're not careful."

Saunders said that students certainly mattered to him but that their welfare was closely linked to the interests of teachers. "What's good for teachers is often times very good for students. I would argue that the best teachers are empowered teachers."

Henderson, the interim chancellor, was more upbeat in an e-mail Wednesday, saying that she was "looking forward to sitting down and hearing about Nathan's philosophy and approach."

"Anyone who knows me knows that I pride myself on being able to work with all kinds of people on a host of issues," she said. "Even though we may have different ways of getting there, I hope that Nathan and I share the goal of ensuring a highly effective teacher for every single one of our city's students.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company