Copyright ©2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going to report, next, on tensions between the school system and the teacher's union in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C. Schools Chancellor, Michelle Rhee, wants to make dramatic changes to teacher pay and job security. She's gotten a lot of national attention for trying to turn around a troubled school system, but she's been unable to negotiate a contract with teachers.

And then D.C. schools laid off more than 200 teachers this month. Rhee said it was an effort to close a budget gap. The union said she had a different motive. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

(Soundbite of chanting)

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: The Washington Teachers' Union has sued to block the layoffs and taken its fight with Chancellor Rhee to the street with rallies like this one, where union leaders railed against her. They wanted to know why she hired over 900 teachers this summer, knowing that layoffs might be on the horizon. And they questioned her claim that layoffs were due to a $44 million budget shortfall, despite millions of dollars D.C. has received in stimulus funds to avert teacher layoffs.

Ms. RANDI WEINGARTEN (President, American Federation of Teachers): Something doesn't add up. This is either tremendous mismanagement or malevolence of the worst kind.

SANCHEZ: Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers. The AFT has been advising the local union ever since Rhee arrived two years ago. Union leaders have resisted Rhee's push for pay for performance and abolishing tenure, which is why the union's contract negotiations with Rhee have gone nowhere.

George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, says his dealings with Rhee have gone something like this:

Mr. GEORGE PARKER (President, Washington Teachers' Union): Where are we going, Chancellor Rhee? Doesn't matter. Don't question where we are going. Do as I say, or you need to be out of here. No one knows what's best for the children but the chancellor.

SANCHEZ: Rhee concedes that this month's layoffs have pushed her already rocky relationship with the teachers' union to a new low.

Ms. MICHELLE RHEE (Chancellor, D.C. Public Schools): Which is unfortunate, but at the same time, when you are seeing such a radical departure from how people are used to operating, you're going to get a lot of pushback.

SANCHEZ: Rhee insists that little else will change and improve if she doesn't do something about the quality of teachers. But by defending seniority and tenure, says Rhee, the union is a hindrance to change.

Ms. RHEE: The union mentality, to protect the jobs of its members at all costs, is not, in the long term, a viable strategy for radically transforming the learning outcomes for kids in this city.

SANCHEZ: So, when forced to lay off teachers, Rhee says her instructions to principals were simple: keep the most effective teachers, even if they're not the most experienced. But union president George Parker says Rhee's orders were to fire teachers opposed to her policies.

Mr. PARKER: And I've talked to some principals who have said � they told us this is an opportunity for you to get rid of those loud-mouthed teachers, anyone else you want to get rid of in your building.

SANCHEZ: Rhee denies that anybody in the school system has said that to principals. Many veteran teachers who were laid off, though, say they were targeted. Emma Johnson is one of them. She's the only certified chemistry and biology teacher at Spingarn High School and she still doesn't know why she was fired.

Ms. EMMA JOHNSON (Chemistry and Biology Teacher): There was no reason given. In my yearly rating - I've been here since '96 - I haven't gotten anything less than exceeding expectations.

SANCHEZ: Johnson, a tall, thin woman in her late 50s, showed up to our interview in a business suit, holding a plaque from the Capitol Hill Kiwanis Club; one of dozens of awards she says she's received from business groups, churches and foundations.

Ms. JOHNSON: I'm very confident I'm going to get my job back, because I'm a very good teacher.

(Soundbite of chanting)

CROWD: One, two, three, four, escort Rhee right out of the door�

SANCHEZ: At last week's rally, lots of students and parents showed up to support teachers and their union, but at least one person was there to denounce them.

Ms. ANNIE MAYO: Our kids in D.C. can't read nor write. For 20 years this went on - two decades, this went on.

SANCHEZ: As the rally wound down, a distraught woman approached the stage where union officials were speaking. She squirmed out of a security guard's arms and began screaming.

Ms. MAYO: Y'all let your black kids not be able to read or write. You did it, not Rhee; y'all did it.

Unidentified Man: You can go home now, ma'am.

Ms. MAYO: Look, I ain't going nowhere�

SANCHEZ: Annie Mayo says she's 62, a mother and grandmother. Mayo is a reminder that parents in the nation's capital are tired and frustrated. For decades, they've waited for good teachers and good schools, and they're still waiting for someone to be held accountable for providing them.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: