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Thursday, June 3, 2010

D.C. Teachers' Union Ratifies Contract, Basing Pay on Results, not Seniority

The Washington Post
Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker calls the ratification of the contract "a great day for teachers and students." (Susan Biddle/the Washington Post) 
District teachers ratified a new contract Wednesday that dramatically expands Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's ability to remove poor educators and places Washington on a growing list of cities and states that have established classroom results, not seniority, as the standard by which teachers are paid.

Members of the Washington Teachers' Union approved the pact 1,412 to 425 after a two-week voting period. The agreement now goes to the D.C. Council, where it is expected to be swiftly approved.

The contract, a product of nearly 2 1/2 years of contentious negotiations, combines a rich traditional financial package with unorthodox initiatives historically resisted by unionized teachers. It includes a five-year, 21.6 percent increase in base pay that will boost the average annual salary of a D.C. educator from $67,000 to about $81,000 and gives the city's public school teachers salaries comparable to those in surrounding suburban districts, according to a union survey. The payday stands out amid a wave of deep school budget cuts across the country. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said Wednesday, for instance, that his city will eliminate raises for its public school teachers and principals over the next two years to avoid deep job reductions.

Although the contract breaks new ground for the District, the extraordinary pace of change in national education policy has in some ways overtaken the document. When negotiations started in late 2007, the concepts embedded in Rhee's contract and evaluation proposals -- performance pay linked to test score growth, weakening of seniority and tenure -- were far more politically polarizing. As both sides hammered away at the bargaining table, these issues were swept into the mainstream by the Obama administration. Its "Race to the Top" grant competition encourages states to revamp their laws to incorporate some of these ideas. Several states, including Colorado and New York, have passed laws addressing these issues in the hope of snagging some of the $3.4 billion on the table.

"The ideas have gained currency at the national level," said former Baltimore mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who is dean of Howard University's law school and was a mediator between the union and the District. "What was seen as bold is now reform, not revolution."

The highlights

A voluntary performance pay program to begin this fall could add $20,000 to $30,000 to D.C. teachers' salaries, based on significant improvement in student test scores and other yet-to-be specified criteria. The system, to be financed for the first three years under a controversial arrangement with private foundations approved by District Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, could raise total compensation for some instructors to $140,000, officials estimate. Although cities such as Denver have had incentive pay programs for several years, none promise the kind of money that Rhee says she is prepared to pay. For teachers who enter the plan, it means no longer having to invest 10 to 15 years in a lockstep pay schedule to command a significant income.

The contract -- in tandem with a new teacher evaluation system that will use growth in test scores as one benchmark -- will also dilute job security for some educators. It allows principals to use job performance, instead of seniority, as the chief determinant when reducing staff because of declining enrollment or program changes.

Under a "mutual consent" clause, displaced teachers who used to be assigned to new schools -- whether principals wanted them or not -- will no longer be guaranteed spots in the system and must find administrators willing to take them. Teachers with good evaluations who are unable to find a job have a year's grace period, at full pay, to continue the search. They can also opt for a $25,000 buyout or early retirement with full benefits if they have 20 or more years of service.

Both sides nevertheless expressed satisfaction with the final version of the accord.

"I am very pleased with the contract," Rhee said. "It strikes a great balance between making teachers understand that we very much value and support the work they do every day and on the administrative side giving us the tools we need to staff the schools effectively." Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker called it "a great day for teachers and students."

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who shared negotiating responsibilities with Parker, was less effusive. She said she was pleased that after months of divisiveness, the two sides found common ground in "wanting teachers to be the best they could be" with provisions for increased professional development and classroom resources.

But the agreement reflects the top-down character of school governance in the District, where, she said, Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) do not recognize the importance of collaboration with teachers.

"At the end of the day, this is still one of the industrial model contracts where a lot of the authority is reposed in the chancellor herself," said Weingarten, adding that the union was able to incorporate checks and balances into the contract that lend more transparency to Rhee's power.

WTU General Vice President Nathan Saunders said that he continued to regard the raises in the contract as "blood money" because of Rhee's decision to lay off 266 teachers last fall.

"We have to be concerned with what happened to our neighbors," said Saunders, who is a candidate for union president. But, he added, "teachers voted for it, and I can conclude nothing more than that it was their will."

High-stakes fight

The contract was approached by both sides as much more than another collective bargaining agreement. With the involvement of Rhee and Weingarten, two of the most outspoken figures in public education, it was viewed locally and nationally as a high-stakes confrontation pitting a new generation of urban school leaders, impatient for rapid change in failing big-city systems, against the politically influential teachers union, which wanted to preserve jobs but also be seen as a force for reform.

Weingarten and union negotiators scuttled Rhee's original proposal for a two-tier plan that would have forced teachers seeking top pay levels to relinquish tenure for a year, exposing them to dismissal without the right to appeal. Rhee's plan would have required new teachers to select the higher-risk salary track.

But Rhee negotiated away relatively little of what she sought. Tenure -- granted to eligible teachers in the District after two years and assailed by Rhee as the "holy grail" of unions -- was left technically intact. But it was redefined to affirm that it is only a due-process mechanism to protect against unfair dismissal, not a guarantee of a lifetime employment.

The accord and the evaluation system give Rhee a formidable toolbox of personnel and policy rules that supporters say could help dramatically improve teaching and learning. The mutual consent provision, for example, has potentially significant implications should Rhee decide to replace or "reconstitute" some or all of the staffs at schools deemed to be failing under the federal No Child Left Behind law, something she has done in previous years.

"What Michelle has put together, no other school district has put together. It's the whole package," said Kate Walsh, executive director of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a longtime advocate for changes in how teachers are hired, trained and compensated.

Rhee benefited enormously from the District's status as a city-state, with a school system under mayoral control. She answered only to Fenty and did not have to contend with an elected school board or a state legislature -- often an important source of political support for unions. She also gained advantage from a mid-1990s law passed by Congress that gave the school system sole authority over creation of a teacher evaluation system.

It allowed Rhee to formulate the new evaluation system unilaterally last year, away from the bargaining table. The result is a new vehicle praised by supporters for its rigor and criticized by many teachers for its excessive complexity and subjectivity.