- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 8, 2010

After more than two years of talks, officials with D.C. Public Schools and the Washington Teachers Union announced Wednesday a tentative contract deal that includes a merit-pay component - an issue long pushed by conservatives and supported by the Obama administration, but considered a no-no by teachers unions.

The deal, which also breaks ground by funding its merit-pay program with private money, marks the end of the on-again, off-again negotiations between schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, who was brought on in June 2007 by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to turn around the troubled school system, and the D.C. teachers union, whose members have been working without a contract since fall 2007.

New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who is in the midst of contract talks, told the Wall Street Journal that the merit-pay plan is a “game-changer” and said he hopes it will become a national model.

The plan still awaits ratification by the unions rank and file, as well as approval from the D.C. Council. It also could be rejected or amended by Congress, though this is not considered likely.

Mrs. Rhee, school-choice advocates and other city leaders have said for years that the career-ladder approach favored by unions hinders reform because it determines teacher pay primarily on the basis of seniority, regardless of their students academic performance. Mrs. Rhee, who has drawn national headlines since she arrived in Washington, also has drawn praise and criticism from parents, teachers and principals as she moves forward with her reform plan.

The union deal calls for school-based professional-development centers and mentoring programs, and a five-year pay package dating retroactively to October 2007, when the last contract expired, and ending in 2012.

The deal gives teachers 3 percent raises in the first, second and fifth years, 5 percent in the third year, and 4 percent in the fourth. The plan also gives Mrs. Rhee additional flexibility to lay off teachers to address budget and enrollment concerns.

The new pact “puts teachers performance with their students at the forefront of all decisions in the [school] district - including compensation and teacher assignment,” Mrs. Rhee said Wednesday.

Both enrollment and money will be at the forefront of D.C. Council members’ minds as they begin 2011 budget hearings next week. The mayor has proposed boosting the school system’s budget for next year even as enrollment steadily declines. The 2008-09 enrollment figure was 45,190, compared with the previous school year, which stood at 49,422. Ten years ago, enrollment was around 67,000, and 20 years ago, the number of pupils was at 80,000.

The agreement unveiled Wednesday calls for a voluntary pay-for-performance plan to reward teachers whose students show academic improvement on standardized tests and other academic measures.

The merit program will be financed with an estimated $65 million in private funding from four institutions that will be gathered by the D.C. Public Education Fund. The four organizations include the Laura and John Arnold Foundation ($10 million) and the Robertson Foundation ($19.5 million).

The Walton Family Foundation, which was established by Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton in 1987, made the largest pledge - $25 million. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has promised $10 million. In March of last year, Mrs. Rhee was named a board of director of the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems, which is funded by the Broad Foundation.

D.C. teachers have two weeks to vote the agreement up or down.