D.C. schools, teachers union reach tentative deal
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 7, 2010; A01
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and the Washington Teachers' Union have reached tentative agreement on a new contract, ending more than two years of closely watched and often-rancorous negotiations, union and District officials said Tuesday.
The proposed pact, which must be ratified by union members and approved by the D.C. Council, provides teacher salary increases of more than 20 percent over five years, with much of it paid for through an unusual arrangement with a group of private foundations that have pledged to donate $65 million.
The deal gives Rhee some of the tools she said she needed to raise the quality of teaching and learning in schools long ranked among the nation's worst, but perhaps more importantly it brings her the prospect of peace with the union as Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) heads into an election-year battle with Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) and perhaps another candidate. The negotiations also have been viewed as a test of the strength of both union forces and reform advocates pushing for aggressive revamping of the nation's schools.
"It took a lot of courage to get here," Rhee said in an interview. "We really have done something that frames everything around performance for kids and making that the really core tenet of the agreement."
The changes in the contract include a voluntary merit-pay program allowing teachers to earn annual bonuses for improvement in student performance on standardized tests and other measures of academic success. The pact, if approved, will also afford Rhee and her school principals more latitude in deciding which teachers to retain in the event that budget cuts or enrollment declines force the closure of some schools.
But the 103-page deal is significantly different from Rhee's original vision for a collective bargaining agreement, which she promised would "revolutionize education as we know it" when she first developed it in 2008.
The deal was first reported on the City Paper's Web site.
Rhee garnered national attention from reform advocates with a two-tier salary proposal that offered experienced educators a chance to make as much as $130,000 annually in salary and performance bonuses. The plan required teachers who aspired to the top pay range to give up tenure protections for a year, essentially exposing them to dismissal without appeal.
Rhee's effort to weaken tenure protections, which she called the "holy grail" of teachers unions, won her rock stardom in segments of the educational reform community that regard the unions as the main impediment to improving public education. It also helped win her what she said was $200 million in funding commitments from private foundations. But it touched off a furor among District teachers and union leaders and languished at the bargaining table.
Aspects of the contract are still expected to draw heavy scrutiny and possible opposition from teachers. The proposed pay package would be financed with $65 million in grants from four private foundations: the Eli and Edythe Broad, Laura and John Arnold, Robertson and Walton Family foundations.
Letters of commitment from each of the private funders were submitted late Tuesday to District Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, who must certify them as fiscally sound for the deal to move forward. Gandhi has informed the D.C. Council that if the foundations are unable to keep their commitments, the District would be obligated to provide the money to the teachers from its coffers.
Private money has played a significant role in public education for years. But union officials said Tuesday that there was no precedent for private foundations underwriting salaries of school teachers. What makes the arrangement more unusual is that some of the proposed private funders are not known for their support of unionized teachers.
The Walton Family Foundation, created in 1987 by Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, has invested heavily in supporting non-unionized charter schools, and critics say many of its contributions reflect an agenda that promotes privatization of public education. Broad runs program for aspiring school administrators and superintendents.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten acknowledged the backgrounds of the foundation but said the District's fiscal situation and the national economic downturn left few options for putting together a substantial financial package for teachers.
The pay package covers five years, with base salary increases of 3, 3, 5 and 5 percent. If the council ratifies the deal, the first 11 percent will be paid retroactively to the District's 3,800 teachers, who have not had a raise in nearly three years. The 266 teachers who were laid off in October as a result of the District's budget crunch also will receive the 11 percent retroactive payment, according to the proposed pact.
Details of the pay-for-performance plan will be worked out by a group of union and school officials, for rollout at the beginning of the 2010-11 school year. The contract calls for the plan to be voluntary, with teachers "qualifying in" on the basis of evaluations or other performance measures.
About 20 percent of the nation's school districts offer some form of "merit" or performance pay. Such measures are high on the agendas of reform advocates, but their direct impact on student performance remains unclear, researchers say.
The other major piece of the deal would allow Rhee and school administrators more freedom in deciding whether to retain teachers who are "excessed" from their jobs when schools are closed or consolidated because of budget or enrollment issues. Under current rules, teachers with the least amount of service are excessed first.
Under the proposal, teachers would be cut according to a formula that gives greatest weight to the previous year's performance evaluation, "unique skills and qualifications" and other contributions to the school community. Length of service would be weighted the least.
The proposal would also give principals more latitude to select staff from the pool of cut teachers. Currently, teachers in that group who don't find spots are assigned to schools by the school district's human resources department. If there are more excessed teachers than open slots, teachers at other schools can be bumped from their jobs on the basis of seniority.
Under a proposed "mutual consent" provision, principals would have more power to pick and choose teachers. Teachers who failed to find new assignments would have three options. They could remain on the payroll for a year, accepting at least two spot assignments as substitutes or tutors or some other support role. If they can't find permanent jobs after a year, they would be fired. Teachers could also choose to take a $25,000 buyout or, if they have at least 20 years if service in the city school system, retire with full benefits.