- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2010

As their colleagues in New York City and suburban Washington face salary freezes, furloughs and layoffs, D.C. teachers on Wednesday approved a $140 million contract that grants them raises retroactive to 2007.

The proposal also includes a voluntary merit-pay component and limits the power of tenure in giving the schools chancellor more power to assign and fire teachers - the kinds of structural changes that conservative school reformers nationwide say are essential to make public schools work better.

The average base salary will jump from $67,000 this year to more than $81,000 in 2012. Depending how well their students perform, teachers in the merit-pay program could earn up to $150,000, which would make them some of the highest-compensated urban teachers in the nation.

The contract awaits approval by the D.C. Council.

The 1,412-425 vote comes nearly two months after Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Washington Teachers‘ Union President George Parker announced a tentative deal had been reached after 2 1/2 years of negotiations.

It also follows contentious discussions in City Hall, where the District’s independent chief financial officer had to intervene once city officials learned D.C. Public Schools did not have the $38 million in its budget to finance the proposed deal.

The agreement addresses many of teachers’ usual concerns, such as benefits, professional development, student discipline and stipends for participating in extracurricular activities.

But it also includes an extraordinary pay-for-performance component that could earn participating teachers tens of thousands of dollars each year. The merit-pay plan, which will be funded with private dollars, is voluntary, and teachers will have to meet certain criteria, including a rise in student performance, to participate.

Merit pay - called a “game changer” by New York Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein - is supported by the Obama administration as an important component to school reform. Another aspect of President Obama’s education initiative is tying teachers’ performance to students’ academic growth.

Not all teachers support merit pay or linking student performance to teachers’ evaluations.

“I think it is demeaning to professionals,” said Lynne Gober, fired by Ms. Rhee as principal of Anacostia High School. “They don’t do this for doctors, lawyers or social workers.

“Teaching is our career, and we felt it was a safe, promising, fulfilling and a rewarding pursuit of happiness. It seems some people are looking at somewhat of a blind spot of ‘the financial deal with the salary,’ not the ramification of more principal power nor the other performance-based issues,” Mrs. Gober said in an e-mail.

In recent weeks, Ms. Rhee has noted that D.C. students are performing measurably better on math, science and reading tests, and those results, as well as scores in the future, will become part of teachers’ evaluations.

The contract practically ensures that the chancellor can fire and assign teachers based on performance, not seniority. It’s an issue that unions have long battled. But as states scramble for the $4.3 billion federal Race to the Top funds, more and more unions are compromising with school districts on the performance aspect.

Nathan Saunders, the D.C. union’s general vice president, said he wants to make sure approval of the contract is “not a hollow one.”

“My concern has always been about the hundreds of teachers who worked under the contract [retirees who worked the past two years] who will not benefit from this agreement as well as the 266 wrongfully terminated teachers,” Mr. Saunders, who met with teachers following the vote tally, said via e-mail.

While most D.C. teachers relished the fact that they likely will begin receiving their retroactive raises this summer, their counterparts in neighboring Montgomery County might be forced to take furlough days as officials tussle with declining revenues.

Meanwhile, New York teachers learned Wednesday from Mr. Klein that in order to avoid an estimated 4,400 layoffs in the nation’s largest school system, teachers face frozen salaries.

The city was expected to give members of the United Federation of Teachers a 2 percent raise, which would cost $400 million. But Mr. Klein and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said they would freeze salaries instead and use the money to stave off layoffs.

D.C. lawmakers are expected to sign off soon on the deal.

“Today’s vote has been almost three years in the making, and I believe it’s high time we seal the deal. I will urge my colleagues on the council to follow the teachers’ lead and give final approval as soon as possible,” Council Chairman Vincent Gray said.