Union Election Could Shape D.C. Ed. Reform’s Future

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 02, 2010 2 min read
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Last week, the American Federation of Teachers released results from the internal Washington Teachers’ Union election, in which four candidates were vying to run the roughly 4,000-member D.C. affiliate.

You’d be forgiven for expecting a high degree of turnout given all the attention that D.C. has received in the press, but you’d be wrong: A surprisingly low number of teachers voted, just over 20 percent of the teaching force. The outcome was very close, with current WTU Vice President Nathan Saunders’ slate coming out 21 votes ahead of incumbent President George Parker. A runoff commences this month with the results due out in early December.

The low turnout doesn’t make the stakes any less high for the D.C. school system, though. The winner of this election will be working with interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson on the continuing implementation of the district’s teacher contract, including the new IMPACT Plus performance-bonus system. And he’ll have the chance to present his own contract proposals just two years from now.

So let’s take a look at the candidates at this point. Despite all the media attention on the D.C school system, George Parker remains something of a cipher. He has come in for far less media attention than D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee or AFT President Randi Weingarten. He fought Rhee on a number of things, including the layoff of 266 teachers in a budget crunch that WTU officials alleged had been contrived by Rhee. More recently, he’s blasted the performance-based firing of a good number of employees.

In interviews, though, he’s been candid about the unusual nature of circumstances in D.C. that have prevented him from taking a harder line on traditional issues like seniority—at one point acknowledging that seniority for layoffs was already pretty much dead because of D.C. regulations.

Early on in Rhee’s tenure, he appeared at events with the then-chancellor to present to rank-and-file teachers the now-infamous “red/green” contract proposal, though he ultimately never put that proposal—which would have required teachers to forgo tenure for a year for the opportunity to win bonuses—to a full vote by the WTU membership.

Still, WTU has had a lot of internal struggles and a fair amount of dysfunction under his watch: In fact, the AFT national had to step in to run the WTU’s elections after multiple delays pushed it way past the original May timeline.

Saunders, a one-time ally of Parker’s, has been a nonstop critic of his handling of the contract and the Rhee administration in general. He’s accusing Parker of “selling out” the membership, and accused Rhee of seeking a “gentrification” of the school system’s teaching force.

If Saunders wins, he’ll most likely face difficulties in fulfilling some of his campaign pledges. First, he’s promised to restore the teaching positions of the 266 laid-off teachers. But the WTU’s own lawyer recently said in court that she couldn’t find evidence in 1,200 pages of documents to back up the union’s assertion that Rhee contrived the budget crisis, The Washington Post reported last week.

Saunders also said he’ll work to end the IMPACT teacher-evaluation system, but it’s hard to see how that would happen in the short term. Regulations in D.C. give the administration the sole oversight of the teacher-evaluation system. The contract signed earlier this year creates a panel to provide teacher input about the affect of IMPACT, but there’s nothing in the contract that actually obligates the district to make any changes.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.