- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A merit-pay agreement for D.C. teachers is hanging in the balance.

Details of the tenuous pay-for-performance initiative between D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and the Washington Teachers Union is contingent upon several conditions, including a provision that grants the private donors the “right to reconsider their support if there is a material change in DCPS’ leadership.”

In a March 30 letter to the chancellor, Cate Swinburn, president of the D.C. Public Education Fund, which will collect and disburse the funds for the merit-pay program, also said the funding commitment is contingent upon data that proves student achievement and teacher retention, among other things.

The chancellor and D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi are scheduled to appear before the D.C. Council on Friday to testify on the veracity of the 2011 schools budget and the committal letters from private donors, as well as clear up discrepancies in the fiscal 2010 schools budget.

Questions concerning school spending became a key focus of the council’s deliberations on Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s fiscal 2011 budget proposal after the firing last fall of 266 teachers and scores of other school workers. The chancellor said at the time that layoffs were necessary to close a budget gap. But after she announced earlier this month that a tentative contract had been reached with the teachers, Miss Rhee said she had discovered a budget surplus of $34 million. Mr. Gandhi has since said a surplus of that size does not exist.

Several lawmakers have raised questions regarding the funding of the five-year, teachers’ deal, which grants raises retroactive to 2007, and they have raised pointed skepticism about the pay-for-performance compact.

Council Chairman Vincent Gray told Miss Rhee in an April 14 letter that he has reservations about the “underlying assumptions and overall way to fund this agreement.”

He reiterated his concerns Saturday, after kicking off his mayoral campaign. He told reporters following the event that he remains committed to education reform but that Miss Rhee and reform are not “inextricably tied” together.

Merit-pay proposals are generally rejected by teachers’ unions, who frown upon tying their pay to student performance. New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, a member of the D.C. Public Education Fund, has called the D.C. plan a “game changer.” Miss Rhee has called it “groundbreaking.” And Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, parent to the D.C. organization, has said the pact “tries to change the culture of the D.C. schools.”

Four donors have agreed to finance the three-year, $63.7 million salary package, which includes the voluntary merit-pay plan: the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Robertson Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

The letter to Miss Rhee from Ms. Swinburn stated: “Given that the successful implementation of the tentative agreement is dependent on effective leadership, the third-party funders reserve the right to reconsider their support for this initiative if there is a material change in DCPS’ leadership.”

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