By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; 1:46 PM
District teachers ratified a new contract Wednesday that dramatically expands Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's ability to remove poor educators, and places D.C. on a growing list of cities and states that have established classroom results, not seniority, as the standard by which teachers are judged.
Members of the Washington Teachers' Union approved the pact by a wide margin after a two-week voting period, according to a ballot count conducted for the union by the American Arbitration Association. The final tally was 1,412 votes to 425. The agreement now goes to the D.C. Council, where it is expected to gain swift approval.
The contract, the product of nearly 2 1/2 years of contentious negotiations that required intervention by a mediator, 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.
A new voluntary performance pay program to begin this fall could add $20,000 to $30,000 to teachers' salaries, based on significant improvement in student test scores and other yet-to-be specified criteria. Under the system, to be financed for the first three years by private foundations, total compensation for some top-rated instructors could reach $140,000, officials estimate. While other cities such as Denver have had incentive pay programs for several years, none promise the kind of money 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 pact -- in tandem with a new teacher evaluation system launched by Rhee this year -- will also dilute the power of instructors to set the terms of their employment. It allows principals to use job performance, instead of seniority, as the chief determinant when reducing staff due to declining enrollment or program changes. Under the "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.
"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."
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who shared negotiating responsibilities with local union President George Parker, was less effusive. She expressed satisfaction that the contract was completed and that provisions for increased professional development will help give teachers the tools they need to do their jobs more effectively. But she also said the agreement reflects the top-down character of school governance in the District, where 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 considerable power.
WTU General Vice President Nathan Saunders said that he continued to regard the raises in the contract as "blood money" because of the 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 presidency. But, he added, "teachers voted for it, and I can conclude nothing more than that it was their will."
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 both 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 entrenched power of politically influential teachers' unions.
While the contract they produced breaks new ground for D.C., the extraordinary pace of change in national education policy has in some ways overtaken their work. When negotiations started in late 2007, the concepts embedded in Rhee's contract and evaluation proposals -- performance pay linked to test score growth, mutual consent, weakening of seniority and tenure -- were still politically polarizing issues on the margins of the national debate. While Weingarten and Rhee hammered away at the bargaining table, these ideas 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.
Nearly 40 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 mediator Kurt Schmoke, former mayor of Baltimore and now dean of Howard University School of Law. "What was seen as bold is now reform, not revolution."
Weingarten and union negotiators did manage to scuttle Rhee's original proposal for a two-tier "red-green" plan that would have forced teachers seeking top pay levels to relinquish tenure for a year, exposing them to dismissal without right of appeal. Rhee's plan would have required new teachers to select the higher-risk, "green" salary track.
In the end, Rhee negotiated away relatively little of what she originally sought. Tenure -- granted to eligible teachers in D.C. after two years and assailed by Rhee 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 in the District's public schools. 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 unique 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. The directive was the result of the union's refusal to renegotiate the existing system with the District.
It allowed Rhee to formulate the new IMPACT 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.