Education Heavyweights Prepare for D.C. Contract Fight

Teachers Union Head, Schools Chancellor Face Off on Tenure Protection, Reforms

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 2009; Page A01

When the District's teachers union unveils its long-awaited contract proposal this month, a head-to-head struggle will be fully joined between two of public education's most prominent and strongest-willed leaders: Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

At stake is not only the fate of Rhee's ambitious attempt to transform the District's failing schools, but also a significant early battle in a nationwide campaign by a new generation of urban school reformers. They want to dramatically elevate the quality of teaching and learning, even if the effort sparks labor tensions with politically influential teachers unions. That could produce ripple effects for the Obama administration, which enjoyed heavy union support in last year's election but has also placed school improvement high on its domestic agenda.

The 14-month struggle between Rhee and the 4,000-member Washington Teachers' Union, AFT's local affiliate, is a potential watershed for Weingarten. She wants to protect her 1.4 million-strong national membership from the spread of what she calls Rhee's "scorched earth" approach and roll back the broad public perception that teachers unions are an impediment to reform because they harbor mediocre or incompetent instructors.

In speeches and commentary, Weingarten has outlined a view of how teachers should be paid, evaluated and, if need be, fired that is fundamentally different from Rhee's. She has denounced Rhee's core objective to weaken tenure protections and link individual pay and job security directly to student achievement. She asserts that such systems breed resentment and discourage the kind of collaboration among instructors that truly improves schools. What she doesn't explicitly say is that individualized rewards for performance could also pose a threat to her union's future.

For the former labor lawyer, elected to the presidency of the nation's second-largest teachers union in July (the National Education Association has 3.2 million members), it will be a high-profile test.

"Randi is the most important teachers union figure in the country today," said Thomas Toch, co-director of Education Sector, an independent Washington think tank. "She's a pivotal figure in this conversation. The stakes are very high for her in D.C."

Weingarten declined yesterday to discuss specific aspects of the proposal, drafted by AFT staff in collaboration with the WTU, because Rhee has not seen it. In general, she said, it would allow removal of underperforming teachers in "humane, fair and fast ways." She said it would also provide more support for District teachers and opportunities for them to grow professionally.

"The best way to protect and represent teachers is to give them what they need to get the job done with kids," Weingarten said. "When parents feel like teachers are doing a good job, that's the win-win situation."

Contract talks between the WTU and the District have been stalled for months over union opposition to Rhee's grand bargain: In exchange for unprecedented salary increases -- to as much as $130,000 a year for senior teachers -- educators must relinquish tenure protection for a year, exposing them to possible dismissal. (Teachers who want to retain tenure would receive smaller pay increases.)

The alternatives to a deal with Rhee are not attractive. Should the talks collapse and both sides declare an impasse, the dispute would first go to the District's Public Employees Relations Board, which attempts to resolve labor-management disputes in D.C. government. If the board deems the impasse to be legitimate, it is referred to a mediator, usually at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. If mediation fails, the board can arrange for binding arbitration.

What legal and political direction the struggle will take remains unclear. In Rhee, Weingarten confronts an adversary whose antipathy toward teachers unions has led her to explore the possibility of legislation empowering the District to declare a New Orleans-style "state of emergency" for the D.C. schools system. That would allow the government to establish a new system of nonunion charter schools, obviating the need to bargain with teachers.

Rhee, who did not respond to a request for comment, told a group of education reporters in the fall: "People tell me the unions are an inevitable part of this [school reform]. My thing is, what has that gotten us so far? All the collaboration and holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya'?"

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