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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 05/20/2010

Charters should leave D.C. teachers contract alone

By Valerie Strauss

Public charter school advocates are, not surprisingly, upset about a proposed new contract that will significantly boost the salaries of unionized teachers in traditional D.C. public schools. But D.C. school system officials have it right: They shouldn’t be.

My colleague Bill Turque writes that advocates believe the city’s 57 charter schools, which are independently operated but publicly funded, have long been on the losing end of the city’s school funding system and will further be disadvantaged by the contract.

Teacher raises promised in the contract -- which will be put up for approval by Washington Teachers Union members this week -- will lift some salaries by tens of thousands of dollars. For the first time, teachers in the traditional public schools will make more than the highest-paid charter school teachers.

Some charter operators are worried about losing their best teachers, but I’m not sure why. Most teachers aren’t in the profession for the money, and in survey after survey they cite other work factors as being more important, including school environment.

But the real issue is in the inherent differences between traditional public schools and public charters. The latter were created to operate independently of the school bureacracy, with their own personnel rules, curriculum and leadership. The whole idea was for them to be separate and distinct.

But now charter advocates want to somehow link themselves to the financial rewards of the proposed contract.

As D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) said at a hearing last month: “I’m always surprised by the desire to be separate, except when there’s something good."

Charter officials say that the funding formula -- under which public and public charter schools receive a uniform per-pupil allocation -- favors the traditional schools because the system can make bulk purchases and get help from city agencies. They also say that they don’t get enough to support their facilities.

But D.C. Schools Superinendent Michelle Rhee correctly points out, charter schools don’t have to service special needs students whose education is more costly than other students.

Besides, increases in teachers’ base pay mandated by the contract would be paid out of the per-pupil allocation, which will benefit charters.

Charter school advocates are likely to sue over this. They shouldn’t. They should just leave well enough alone.

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By Valerie Strauss  | May 20, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, D.C. Schools, Teachers  | Tags:  charter schools, d.c. charter schools, d.c. public schools, d.c. teachers contract, michelle rhee, teachers contract, washington teachers union  
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Well, you can't have it both ways -- in MD, the teachers union almost shut down a successful charter school by claiming that the school needed to follow the public school pay rules.

Personally, I think they should be completely separate, vs. "public school lite." But Valerie, I don't recall you getting similarly worked up over the MD issue (if you did and I've forgotten, I apologize).

Posted by: laura33 | May 20, 2010 7:20 AM | Report abuse

Most of the good veteran teachers I know wouldn't be caught dead working in a charter school. So many charters are fly by night at worse or managed by inexperienced yet idealistic administrators. There's one I know of where teachers all have different salaries, there is no pay scale uniformity. Every year the administrators decide whether to renew your job for the next year. This is no way to live and work. So I'll stay in the public schools, warts and all.

Posted by: chelita | May 20, 2010 8:31 AM | Report abuse

Wasn't the whole idea supposed to be that competition was good for education? So compete.

Posted by: celestun100 | May 20, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

Ms. Strauss:

Most teachers would leave for DCPS because the hours are shorter, the workload less and the expectations lower than at a charter school.

Also, Chancellor Rhee is partly right. There are charter schools that specifically serve special needs students, St. Coletta and Maya Angelou among others. Rhee has conveniently bunched most of the DCPS special needs students in a few schools and the rest are transported to MD at a cost to the DC taxpayer of $225,000 a student a year.

The fact is that the charter school movement supports the teacher's raise and wouldn't have a problem with the funds if the School Reform Law was adhered to and equitable funding was approved by the Mayor and the anti-charter bureaucracy.

Also, you spelled Superintendent wrong in your opinion article.

Posted by: mfm81472 | May 20, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

I think that the problem would be in recruiting new teachers. I don't think many teachers who feel part of a good school would move just to get more money (depending on if they can pay their bills). But the new teachers would go for a higher salary because they don't know what the work climate is like in either situation.

Charter schools were supposed to open up the market to competition. This was supposed to solve a lot of educational problems. So, now DCPS is actually competing and the Charter schools are saying it's unfair?

I think this is similar to what private and parochial schools have always had to deal with. Less resources equals less for the kids, even if you have great people working there.

Posted by: celestun100 | May 20, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps the charters are sueing because this will pressure them to increase teachers salaries, leaving less money for the executives. I hear that in some charter schools the executives are pulling a hefty salary.

Posted by: jlp19 | May 20, 2010 6:58 PM | Report abuse

D.C.'s public charter schools support the teacher contract and the reforms of Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. They do not want to sue to stop the contract and they have no problem with the Chancellor raising private funds for DCPS, as charters also raise money this way.

What D.C.'s public charter schools want is for the city to follow its own law, which says that all public schools--charters and traditional--should receive the same amount of public funds per student for school operating costs, the biggest single budget item of which is, of course, teachers' salaries.

Right now the vast majority of the 21% increase in base pay will be paid for by private and federal government money. But D.C.'s Uniform Per Student Funding Law is expressly designed to ensure that DCPS and the public charter schools receive uniform public funding for teacher salaries and other operating expenses from the General Fund of the District. Yet for many years the government has refused to raise the foundation level of the UPSFF to permit adequate teacher pay levels for DCPS and the charter schools;

Instead, they react to DCPS negotiated pay raises and projected raises by providing money to DCPS outside the funding formula. For example, in FY 2004 DCPS was given $31,821,990 outside the UPSFF for negotiated labor raises. And between FY 2004 and FY 2007 DCPS received a total of $18,839,614 outside the UPSFF for “Labor Contingency.” Finally, in 2008, DCPS was given a supplemental appropriation outside the UPSFF of approximately $81 million dollars, at least $10 million of which was for salaries.

In addition to pay increases, the government forces the public charter schools to pay for operating expenses that DCPS does not have to pay for, such as school building maintenance (provided by Allen Lew), teacher pensions, and attorney fees. DCPS also is funded for the students it projects will be enrolled, while the charters are funded only for students that actually are enrolled. All of these items are in the “market basket” of operating expenses that make up the Foundation Level of the UPSFF, which means that DCPS is essentially being double-funded for them. These inequities add up to about $1,500 per year per student ($68 million). On top of that, DCPS gets and spends about $6,000 per student for facilities while the charter schools get just $2,800.

What D.C.'s public charter schools want, and what may force them into the courts, is for the DC government to follow the dictates of the law and the principles of public school funding equity.

Posted by: btowns1 | May 26, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

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