Teaching Profession

Pay-for-Tenure Swap for D.C. Teachers Under Debate

By Stephen Sawchuk — August 19, 2008 7 min read
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The District of Columbia’s 4,000 teachers will be asked to vote next month on a tentative contract that would offer those willing to forgo tenure protections the opportunity to earn up to $131,000 by next school year if their students post significant learning gains.

Along with the performance-based pay and tenure changes, the contract would formally dismantle the seniority system.

While other districts have put performance-pay systems in place and others still have relaxed seniority rules, the initiative coming out of the nation’s capital would, in one stroke, swap job protection for salaries that outpace what most teachers would ever realize.

Both D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and George Parker, the president of the Washington Teachers Union, say the higher salaries would improve the district’s ability to attract high-quality teachers to the school system.

Washington’s negotiations are taking place in an unusual context—a district with a strong chancellor under the direct supervision of the mayor, notoriously underperforming schools, and a student enrollment that has increasingly fled to charter schools. But observers suggested that the plan could offer other districts a model for instituting similar changes.

“The biggest challenge to these reforms is political, and this [plan] could ease the political challenge through an opt-in approach,” said Bryan Hassel, a co-director of Public Impact, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based organization that consults on human-capital issues in education.

A contract sent back to the bargaining table, however, would come as a significant setback for Ms. Rhee’s plans to reform the district. And it could result in the loss of the millions of private-foundation funds she hopes to secure to support the higher salaries.

Deep Divisions

Negotiations have illuminated deep divisions among the teaching force and the WTU, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate.

They are also a test of sorts for the AFT, which is closely watching the process, and according to WTU sources, has commissioned a legal opinion on the proposals.

“I think the AFT is very concerned about this contract,” said Kate Walsh, the president of the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit that advocates changes to the teaching profession. “It’s a reinvention of teacher governance, and anything that the national [union] sees as a threat to the current set of rules and conditions ... would be reason for it to get involved and protect what it fought so hard to earn.”

In its current form, the plan hinges on a two-tiered system for compensating teachers. Teachers electing the “red” tier would receive pay boosts based years of experience and education attained.

Those teachers’ salaries would increase by 28 percent over five years—a significant increase in a sluggish economy.

Teachers electing to join the “green” tier would give up tenure protections for one year and would have to win their principals’ approval to regain permanent status.

New teachers would automatically enter the green tier and have a four-year probationary period, rather than the two years stipulated in the current contract.

In addition to regular raises, green-tier teachers could earn up to $20,000 yearly in bonuses based on student academic growth. Mr. Parker said union and district officials would set the criteria for growth after a pact has been finalized. The criteria are likely to include some consideration of test scores, a priority for Ms. Rhee.

The bonuses could push teachers with as few as six years of experience past the $100,000 mark. The current top salary, for a teacher with a Ph.D. and 21 years of experience, is $87,500.

Candi Peterson, a member of the board of trustees for the Washington Teachers’ Union, talks about the proposed contract for public school teachers in the District of Columbia outside the union’s offices. She answered questions for the news media, while a small group of teachers met with union officials to discuss the contract.

If the contract is completed this summer, it would take effect in the 2008-09 school year and green-tier bonuses would be awarded for the first time in 2009-10. The current contract, though expired, remains in effect until officials have inked a new one. Mr. Parker said he hopes to present members with the tentative contract by mid-September.

But the tenure-for-pay element has emerged as a crucial sticking point in negotiations between Ms. Rhee and Mr. Parker, who says that the green-tier pathway would inadequately protect teachers from arbitrary dismissal by their principals.

Such dismissals happen “all the time,” he told reporters at a recent meeting at the union’s headquarters. “Anytime you have the human element in decisionmaking, there’s human frailty.”

The WTU is investigating the dismissal of 78 nontenured teachers this year, Mr. Parker said.

He wants district officials to agree to institute an expedient, neutral appeals system for green-tier teachers who are not granted tenure at the end of their one-year transitional period.

Ms. Rhee would not comment about that proposal while contract negotiations are under way.

A Union Divided?

The contract proposes doing away with seniority for the hiring, transfer, and “excessing” of teachers—a contract term for the process of removing a teacher from a building for budgetary or program-reduction reasons and reassigning him or her. It would extend to teachers under both tiers.

A principal would need to agree to take on an excessed teacher. Those in the red tier who voluntarily chose to leave teaching would receive a buyout, while green-tier teachers could be dismissed at any time after being excessed.

WTU General Vice President Nathan Saunders and Candi Peterson, a member of the local union’s board of trustees, say the proposal would lead to a mass dismissal of teachers.

Mr. Saunders contends that Ms. Rhee would seek to replace veteran teachers with novices entering the profession through exclusive teacher-recruiting programs such as Teach For America and the New Teacher Project.

“We [will] see a gentrification of public schools that has nothing to do with student achievement,” Mr. Saunders said.

See Also

For information and discussions on this topic, see Teacher Beat, edweek.org’s new blog.

But Mr. Parker said the proposals are meant to bring contract language up to date with current district practice and give veterans extra protection. Since the late 1990s, he said, the district has been able to bypass seniority and the excessing process through rules and laws permitting it to consider factors beyond length of service when it reduces the teaching force.

Until now, “no [WTU] union president’s had the courage to say that seniority’s pretty much been gone since 1999,” Mr. Parker said.

Where Teachers Stand

Mr. Parker did acknowledge, however, that the interests of new teachers and those of veterans do not always match. The sentiment hints at a divide that could emerge in the vote between younger teachers eager for big bonuses against veterans who want to retain existing protections.

Heather Migdon, 27, is one of a handful of teachers who went to WTU headquarters last week to press for a vote.

“I trust my principal,” said the 5th grade teacher, who would pursue the green tier if the contract were finalized. “If you don’t, I suggest you go with the red tier.”

But Jeff Canady, a 16-year veteran who now teaches 3rd grade, argued that the proposal “basically eliminates the rights of teachers.”

Ms. Rhee has publicly denied a generational divide. In a previous interview, she said teachers across the gamut of age and experience had voiced support for the plan. Indeed, under the green tier, the highest salary of $131,000 in 2009-2010 would go to effective educators with 14 or more years of experience.

A poll commissioned by the AFT to gauge WTU members’ feelings about the proposals could offer the clearest picture of how teachers might vote, but Mr. Parker said the WTU was still deciding whether to release the results.

In the meantime, both supporters and detractors have taken to message boards and blogs to voice their opinions and frustrations, and to share tidbits of information gained from personal communications with Ms. Rhee and Mr. Parker.

Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based think tank Education Sector, said such communications reflect the difficulty for leadership to complete a contract both swiftly and with a maximum of teacher input.

“Pushing [the contract] through quickly is going to lead to consternation on the part of people who probably should be full participants in the process,” Ms. Silva said. “[But] slowing it down to the point where all teachers feel comfortable could stall or stop this process.”

Other officials are seeking to influence the dialogue more directly. Both Mr. Saunders and Ms. Peterson said the AFT has secured a legal opinion on the contract, and they are pressing the union to release it to WTU members before the vote.

An AFT spokesman said he did not know about the opinion.

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Staff Writer Lesli A. Maxwell contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2008 edition of Education Week as Pay-for-Tenure Swap for D.C. Teachers Under Debate

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