D.C. Deal With Teachers Union A Model For U.S.?

One of Washington, D.C.'s angriest, most bitter disputes may be coming to an end. After more than two years of wrangling, District of Columbia schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and the city's teachers union have reached a tentative agreement on a new contract.

The deal could become a model for school reform around the country.

Michelle Rhee testifies before the House Education and Labor Committee. i i

hide captionD.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, shown here in 2008, got a voluntary pay-for-performance plan as part of the tentative agreement with the D.C. teachers union.

Susan Walsh/AP
Michelle Rhee testifies before the House Education and Labor Committee.

D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, shown here in 2008, got a voluntary pay-for-performance plan as part of the tentative agreement with the D.C. teachers union.

Susan Walsh/AP

It comes after a protracted, three-year dispute that got so nasty, few thought it would ever be resolved. Rhee and union officials made key concessions that once seemed unattainable, but it was worth it, Rhee said at a hastily arranged news conference.

"We've had one goal since [starting the job as chancellor], and that is to build a school system that ensures that every child in this city, regardless of where they live, has the opportunity to obtain an excellent education through our public school system," Rhee said.

Rhee was accompanied at the news conference by Washington Teachers Union President George Parker.

"Needless to say ... this has been a long journey," Parker said. "We have a contract that gives our teachers the support and resources that our children need to graduate knowing how to read, knowing how to navigate life."

Wins For Rhee And For Teachers

Both sides gave up something and got something in return. Rhee gets to remove ineffective teachers, but teachers get to keep tenure. Teachers get a 21.6 percent pay increase over five years, and Rhee gets a pay-for-performance plan.

Rhee says it will be part of a new pay structure based not on credentials or the number of years a person has been teaching but on whether or not students are making progress.

Sheilla H. Gill had been a counselor at a D.C. school for 32 years before being fired last year. i i

hide captionSheilla H. Gill had been a counselor at a D.C. high school for 32 years before being fired last year. She held signs of protest near a press conference on Wednesday where Rhee and the teachers union declared they had reached a tentative agreement.

Claudio Sanchez/NPR
Sheilla H. Gill had been a counselor at a D.C. school for 32 years before being fired last year.

Sheilla H. Gill had been a counselor at a D.C. high school for 32 years before being fired last year. She held signs of protest near a press conference on Wednesday where Rhee and the teachers union declared they had reached a tentative agreement.

Claudio Sanchez/NPR

"For the amazing teachers in this district who come in to work every day and do heroic things for children, their work will be recognized and rewarded in a wholly different way," Rhee said.

Voluntary Pay-For-Performance Plan

When Rhee took over in 2007, she set out to entice teachers to give up tenure in exchange for more pay. But the union bitterly opposed the idea. Now what the two sides have agreed to is a voluntary pay-for-performance plan in which teachers could earn up to $20,000 extra for raising students' performance and test scores.

The plan's $64.5 million price tag would come from an unprecedented arrangement with four foundations all involved in the city's efforts to turn around struggling schools.

Andrew Rotherham, who has written about teacher contracts and is co-founder of Bellweather Education, an advocacy group for low-income school children, says the agreement is a big deal nationally.

"A lot of people really wanted to see Michelle Rhee beaten back and beaten down because she was a symbol for reform, and that hasn't happened," Rotherham says.

Rotherham says that if the contract is ratified by the union's rank-and-file and approved by the City Council, it will have an impact on collective bargaining rights and negotiations across the country, especially in places where political pressure has been building to tie students' performance to teacher performance and pay.

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