The battle is over! After almost three years of fighting, Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and the Washington Teachers’ Union announced on Wednesday that they have reached tentative agreement on a teacher contract. This may sound like no big deal, but at times since June, 2007, when Rhee took office, the wrangling got so nasty that most people believed an agreement could never be reached. The proposed pact still has to be ratified by union members and approved by the D.C. Council, but how did it even get this far?
One important factor is $64.5 million, the amount contributed by four private sources: the Eli and Edythe Broad, Laura and John Arnold, Robertson and Walton Family foundations. I’m guessing that there will be some scrutiny applied to these private funding sources by both teachers and D.C. council members. A quick look at the Walton Family foundation, for example, reveals that this was created in 1987 by Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, and that it has also donated significant amounts of money to non-unionized charter schools, raising concerns that its agenda is the privatization of public education. Exactly what strings are attached to the D.C. money?
As a result of all this private funding, the pact provides teacher salary increases of more than 20 percent over five years. Teachers in the D.C. system can currently make a maximum of $87,000, but under the new system, that would rise to $147,000. Pretty attractive!
“We’re really talking about being able to offer salaries that would compel people to become a teacher because they know they’re going to be compensated at the right level,” Ms. Rhee said at a news conference announcing the deal.
Another contributing factor is the compromises made on both sides. Rhee gets to remove ineffective teachers, but teachers get to keep tenure, a huge sticking point in the negotiations. And while teachers get their big pay increase, Rhee gets her merit pay plan.
When Rhee took over in 2007, she set out to entice teachers to give up tenure in exchange for more pay. But the union bitterly opposed the idea. Now what the two sides have agreed to is a voluntary pay-for-performance plan to reward teachers whose students show academic improvement on standardized tests and other academic measures.
D.C. teachers will be anxious to see what those “other academic measures” are. Merit pay based on performance on standardized tests is wrong for many reasons. Most obviously, why should I benefit if I happen to get a class of high achieving students? Alternatively, why should I suffer if I have students who move, or miss a lot of class, or have social and family issues that affect their
ability to study. I have no control over these factors.
Still, many states around the country are trying to overhaul teacher tenure, and will be watching to see how the D.C. plan unfolds. Two prime examples are Maryland, with a proposal to delay tenure, and Florida where tenure would be abolished. Ohio enacted a law last year that delayed granting tenure until a teacher has served for seven years.
The teacher tenure system as it stands in most states means that once a teacher gains tenure, generally after two or three years, that teacher has to commit some morally egregious crime in order to be removed. The movement to overhaul this system is a good one, but the devil may be in the details.
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