- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The nation’s teachers and unions are watching Washington, but not because of anything underfoot in Congress or the White House. Indeed, the occupants of those two institutions and politicians who are in search of a home in either of them should be watching, too. The “educrats” cannot afford not to. That’s because another institution, City Hall, is gearing up for a battle royale with the Washington Teachers Union and, perhaps, the American Federation of Teachers. Before the dust settles, it’s likely that America’s largest teachers union (the National Education Association) and other unions that represent the public sector might be joining the fray as well. What’s at stake in little old Washington, D.C. - the non-state of non-states in these United States, is a labor (dis)agreement that could prove to be a watershed moment in school reform and labor history.

The gist of the situation is this. In 2007, the D.C. legislature effectively gave itself and the mayor absolute control of public education. The mayor came to understand (as we long editorialized) that the city’s underachieving student bodies were directly tethered to an underperforming teaching corps. So, Mayor Adrian Fenty’s lieutenants proposed a two-prong approach to correct the situation: tie classroom performance to teachers’ pay and collapse the longstanding structure that allowed teachers with seniority (but inferior performance) to “bump” a lesser experienced (but more effective) teacher out of a job.

The NEA does not like pay-for-performance plans that are based on teacher evaluations. It calls them inappropriate. The AFT, on the other hand, recently elected as its president the very New York teachers union chief who last school year negotiated merit-pay with the city. Randi Weingarten, now head of the AFT, the parent body of the D.C. union, says she is willing to entertain merit-pay ideas.

The tide may be turning. In the 1980s, when local and state coffers were flush with tax dollars, pay-for-performance policies regarding union contracts began leaving such a bad taste in politicians’ mouths they stopped mouthing the words. Now, there are politicians like Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who isn’t shy to say that his state’s various merit-pay programs pass muster with the unions because the unions helped to develop them. And there’s even the AFT, whose teachers no longer reject the idea out of hand.

Today, D.C. voters cast ballots in primaries that will give lawmakers a pretty good idea of who will and will not be staying in the legislature. This week, new rules regarding teacher licensure take effect. The union’s line, of course, is that the revised rules are an underhanded way to fire teachers - as if getting rid of bad apples so the whole bunch won’t be spoiled is bad policy. Also, this month, D.C. teachers are expected to vote on a pay-for-performance plan put forth by Chancellor Michelle Rhee. The chancellor has been all around town and the national media touting the plan. She said if substantial reform doesn’t come by way of changes to insane work rules, “Then, I’m screwed.” And if Mrs. Rhee fails to get the necessary labor agreement to make a difference in the lives of Washington’s children, guess who will be falling like dominoes right behind her?

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