Superintendent Michelle Rhee’s fight against the Washington, D.C. teacher unions

I’ve always believed that the best way to learn about a topic is by understanding the topic as a fight between two opposing teams. And that’s how we’re going to learn about the Washington D.C. school system in this balanced post at the libertarian magazine Reason.(Not the usual conservative stuff I post 100% of the time)

Here’s the situation:

D.C. is a divided town. In the heart of the capital, the federal government hums along, churning out paperwork and disillusioned interns at a steady clip. But the rest of the city is in pretty miserable shape. The District of Columbia Public Schools rank below all 50 states in national math and reading tests, squatting at the bottom of the list for years at a time. More than 40 percent of D.C. students drop out altogether. Only 9 percent of the District’s high schoolers will finish college within five years of graduation. And all this failure doesn’t come cheap: The city spends $14,699 per pupil, more than all but two states and about $5,000 more than the national average. Yet as unlikely as it seems, D.C. may prove to be the last best hope for school reform in the United States.

But then, a reform-minded superintendent named Michelle Rhee appeared:

In July 2008, Rhee revealed her opening gambit with the teachers union: She offered the teachers a whole lot of money. Under her proposal, educators would have two choices. With the first option, teachers would get a $10,000 bonus—a bribe, really—and a 20 percent raise. Nothing else would change. Benefits, rights, and privileges would remain as they were. Under the second option, teachers would receive a $10,000 bonus, a 45 percent increase in base salary, and the possibility of total earnings up to $131,000 a year through bonuses tied to student performance. In exchange, they would have to forfeit their tenure protections.

But the teachers said no to her offer:

Teachers simply don’t believe that it should be possible for them to be fired—not by a principal, not by a superintendent, not by anyone. Unions and other opponents of the reformers prefer to stick with warmed-over solutions that have been failing for decades: smaller class sizes, more teacher pay, and more job security.

Then Rhee tried to tie teacher license renewals to performance, but the unions said no:

In 2008, after Rhee’s office released a statement about tying teacher licensing to student outcomes, the Washington Teachers Union (the dominant local union) sent an email message to its members stating, “This proposed regulation would not benefit DCPS teachers, as a teacher’s true effectiveness should not be linked to a teacher’s right to renew his or her license.” The message went on to explain that it was “dangerous and discriminatory” to “require a candidate to demonstrate effectiveness to continue teaching in a District of Columbia Public School.”

Children benefit when parents can get a voucher so the parents can choose a better school, and especially when they can choose charter schools or even private schools or even homeschooling – anything is better than public schools. But the unions don’t want parents to be able to use a voucher to choose a competitor. Unions want children to remain in failing schools so that the union members will not loose their jobs.

The article continues:

In pre-Rhee D.C. the single glimmer of hope for many families was the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships Program. Funded by a separate congressional appropriation of $14 million, it offered vouchers to kids in failing schools, allowing them to attend private school instead of their assigned public school. The program took no money from the city budget and was hugely popular with parents and kids; since 2004 more than 7,200 students had applied for a limited number of slots. Last year 1,700 kids were accepted. Next year there will be none. On the campaign trail, Barack Obama had promised to let scientific results determine his education policy. In office, however, he let political influence kill the program even as initial studies were showing positive gains by students and high parental satisfaction. The National Education Association, which is consistently one of the biggest single donors to U.S. political campaigns, pressured the Democratic Congress to eliminate funding for vouchers in 2009. Obama promptly signed the death sentence into law.

The fight over vouchers and charter schools—both of which serve as workarounds to the ossified hiring/firing rules of public schools—is playing out all around the country, with teachers unions usually coming out on the winning side.

[…]Teachers unions contribute more than $60 million a year to political campaigns, topping contributor lists at the state and federal levels, and nearly all of the money goes to Democrats. That investment buys the continuation of the status quo plus some platitudes about class size and teacher pay from every prominent Democrat. Reformers have virtually no presence on Capitol Hill.

On the one side, there is the courageous, no-nonsense superintendent Michelle Rhee, parents and children. And on the other side, there is the Washington D.C. education bureaucracy, teacher unions and the Democrat party. The unions are winning. Do parents care to understand what is stopping their own children from succeeding?

The shocking thing in all of this is that Rhee is a Democrat, and hardly a conservative. She’s no hero of mine, but at least we share the same enemies on this issue.

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