Teaching Profession

Foundations Would Help Fund D.C. Teacher Contract

By Stephen Sawchuk — April 08, 2010 7 min read
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Signaling the endgame in a fractious and nationally watched teacher-contract negotiation, officials of the District of Columbia schools and the local teachers’ union have reached a preliminary bargaining agreement that includes a voluntary individual performance-pay program to be financed largely by private foundations.

The arrangement is believed to be the first of its kind in the country, with four foundations committing nearly $65 million in total for the performance-based compensation. In all, the contract would cost about an additional $140 million over its five-year duration.

Under the proposal, which will likely go to the Washington Teachers’ Union membership for ratification this month, teachers would earn more than 20 percent in retroactive pay and in new base raises over the life of the contract.

Gone from the tentative pact is Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee’s earlier proposal to create a two-tiered “red” and “green” pay system, which would have required some teachers to relinquish tenure for a year for the opportunity to win performance-based bonuses. The proposal drew nationwide attention, but was never put to a full union vote by George Parker, the president of the WTU.

Still, the tentative agreement contains vestiges of the plan, including an optional performance-pay program that could push the most effective veteran teachers’ salaries well beyond the $100,000 mark.

See Also

The Washington Teachers’ Union has posted highlights of the tentative agreement, as well as a benefits summary and a Q&A fact sheet for D.C. educators about the elements of the agreement. (All files require )

Teachers electing to join that program would not be required to relinquish their due process rights, as would have been the case under the former green-tier proposal. The contract would, however, streamline procedures for dismissing poorly performing teachers.

Little of the tension that characterized the months of negotiations was on display Wednesday at Eliot-Hine Middle School in northeast Washington, where Ms. Rhee; Mr. Parker; the city’s mayor, Adrian M. Fenty; and Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the WTU’s parent union, all praised the contract.

“This is a great contract, not only for kids but for teachers as well,” Ms. Rhee said.

In outlining some of the changes, Mr. Parker highlighted new professional-development, induction, and school discipline initiatives for teachers, while Ms. Weingarten called the contract “a triumph for collective bargaining as a vehicle for improving teaching and learning.”

“We may have had different views about how to get there, but both sides wanted change,” she said. “The status quo was not working for anyone.”

Rocky Road

Over the past two years, stories in the national news media raised the contract negotiations to almost mythical proportions, variously depicting them as ground zero for school reform or as a showdown of sorts between Ms. Rhee and Ms. Weingarten, who began to provide formal bargaining assistance to the WTU in December 2008.

A number of subtexts complicated the process, including political vicissitudes both on the local Washington scene and internally within the WTU.

Ms. Rhee, for instance, had sparred with Vincent Gray, the chairman of the District of Columbia Council, over the school district’s procedures for closing schools, as well as the layoff of more than 260 teachers just months after the district had hired hundreds of new ones. Mr. Gray is generally viewed as an ally of the WTU and plans to challenge Mr. Fenty—to whom Ms. Rhee directly reports—in the mayoral race this year.

The relationship between the unions and Ms. Rhee soured as the chancellor moved ahead with an agenda to improve teacher effectiveness outside the contract by implementing little-known provisions of the District of Columbia code. She implemented a provision allowing principals to dismiss teachers who fail to bring up their performance after being placed on a 90-day improvement plan.

In the current school year, the school system rolled out an evaluation system, called IMPACT, based partly on student test-score growth. The AFT and the WTU criticized it in part because the “master teachers” who conduct two of the five total observations of each teacher are hired by the school district rather than selected jointly with the union.

The tentative contract gives a nod to several of those disagreements. For instance, the pact contains a specific set of rules for determining which teachers would be laid off during budget reductions that would give school personnel more say over which teachers should be cut. The union had objected to layoff decisions in the current school year, which under District of Columbia rules are carried out by principals primarily according to a vaguely defined “school need” factor.

The contract also would require school improvement plans to be jointly set by union and management, create a panel for improving the IMPACT evaluation system, and clarify that probationary teachers could not be dismissed for “arbitrary or capricious” reasons.

Ms. Rhee, for her part, stands to gain some additional flexibility over teacher assignment. In what would dismantle the city’s already-weakened seniority system, the contract would require placements to carry the “mutual consent” of both principal and teacher.

Teachers with effective performance ratings who were “excessed”—removed from their schools because of program closures but still on the school system’s payroll—would have a number of additional benefits, such as a $25,000 cash buyout, if they weren’t immediately able to secure new placements. Those proposals are similar to several of Ms. Rhee’s initial ones under the red-tier proposal and would apply only to teachers eschewing the new performance-pay program.

Both Ms. Rhee and Mr. Parker attributed much of their ability to work through the sticking points, particularly in the pay program, to the dean of the Howard University Law School, Kurt Schmoke, who was brought on as a mediator during a rocky patch in negotiations.

“I give him full credit” for the breakthrough, Ms. Rhee said in an interview. “By the time we brought him in, we thought this was never going to happen.”

Surprisingly, the efforts to streamline due process procedures were less sensitive, Ms. Rhee asserted. “We agreed that the idea of a job for life is an antiquated notion that has to be done away with, and we’ve gone a long way to clarify that [in the contract],” she said.

Foundation Support

Among the contract’s most novel features, a new individual, voluntary performance-based-pay program would be supported by a total of $64.5 million in grants from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Robertson Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.

Observers had wondered whether Ms. Rhee, who had reportedly secured foundation support for her 2008 pay proposal, would be able to maintain that support without a harder line on tenure.

But Dan Katzir, the managing director for the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation, said the version unveiled Wednesday is “still a pioneer contract in some ways.”

“No evaluation system is perfect in education or any other sphere, but it does move us toward compensating and evaluating teachers based on results,” he continued. “The core elements of [the early proposals] are still intact. Great teachers can now be rewarded for their excellence.”

The Washington pact would stipulate that the new pay model would be based partly, but not exclusively, on improvement in student test scores, where applicable. The maximum bonus amount and precise rules for awarding bonuses are still being discussed, but Ms. Rhee said that some teachers could earn potentially even more than $20,000 annually in bonus pay. That figure was the upper limit in her 2008 proposal. The district’s current salary schedule tops out at $87,500.

Peppered with questions about the financial viability of a proposal based heavily on external funding sources, Ms. Rhee said she would release a “sustainability analysis” showing that projected cost savings would allow the school system to continue the bonus raises after the foundation funding runs out.

Ms. Weingarten praised the foundation funding as an innovative way to ensure recognition of the importance of teachers in a tough budget climate.

Next Steps

The tentative contract has been vetted by external evaluators, and the local government’s chief financial officer must also assure its financial viability before it can go out for ratification. Once it reaches that stage, teachers will have at least 15 days to review the tentative contract and vote on it.

It is not yet clear that the proposal will be ratified by the WTU membership. For one thing, Mr. Parker faces internal opposition from a constituency led by the union’s vice president, Nathan A. Saunders, who plans to challenge Mr. Parker in upcoming union elections.

A few protesters showed up at the April 7 press conference, one carrying a sign that read, “Private foundations don’t support unions.” But officials with both the school district and the WTU said they had heard informally from other teachers who are pleased with the tentative contract.

And as both Ms. Rhee and the union leaders acknowledged, the real test will come during implementation, if the contract is ratified.

“We probably won’t be having coffee over the backyard fence,” Ms. Weingarten of the AFT said, “but we are committed ... to sustaining a system that works for all our students.”

Staff Writer Dakarai I. Aarons contributed reporting to this story.

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2010 edition of Education Week as Foundations to Fund Novel D.C. Teacher Contract

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