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Memo to charters: don't mess with D.C. teacher contract

My colleague Bill Turque has produced his much-anticipated story on the furor among D.C. public charter schools over the generous new contract for teachers in regular D.C. public schools. He reveals the charters might take legal action to tap into some of that money for themselves.

They better not.

Everyone who reads this blog knows I am an aggressive supporter of the charter school movement, particularly in D.C. My most recent book was about the birth of the most successful charter network in the country (and D.C.)--the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). I have said often that charters are the most interesting and beneficial development in public education in the last decade or so.

But it would be an act of betrayal for D.C. charters to try to grab some dough from the regular public schools just as Michelle A. Rhee, the greatest friend of charters ever to lead the D.C. schools, is putting into place her controversial plan to change the way teachers are compensated and motivated.

Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS), the charter-promoting organization here that is reportedly considering legal action, has done heroic work to earn D.C. charters one of the highest levels of tax-dollar support in the country. FOCUS is going to look craven and petty if it attacks the contract, particularly since the new D.C. teacher deal is unlikely to hurt charters nearly as much as some charter advocates think it will.

As Turque points out, the contract would raise pay 21.6 percent by 2012, increasing the average annual salary for D.C. teachers from about $67,000 to $81,000 a year. A privately financed performance pay system to be launched in 2013 could push the salaries of some teachers above the $100,000 mark.

Many charter officials told Turque this would make it hard for them to keep their best teachers. Charters such as KIPP, which has seven schools in D.C., have produced unprecedented gains in achievement for impoverished children. They have strenuously recruited and trained the best teachers they could find and created a team system that allows them to support each other, and each student, every hour of an often longer school day. They are paid extra for the extra hours, but I don't think any KIPP teachers are making $100,000 yet.

Would the prospect of riches in the regular school system lure them away? In some circumstances it might happen. I can imagine a gifted D.C. principal such as the late Brian Betts stealing some good teachers from the charters because at his school he had managed to create a KIPP-like atmosphere of colleagues backing each other up and striving to raise achievement for all.

Despite Rhee's attempts to create that situation in every regular D.C. school, she is a long way from her goal. Most schools have a mix of teachers working at the top of their games and others who are still struggling to meet the standards necessary for a successful urban school. That creates tension and misunderstanding that is distracting to the kind of teacher KIPP employs. At KIPP, teachers who do not raise their performance to the level expected are dismissed, so that everyone on the team knows that everyone else is making a major contribution.

I suspect KIPP and other charters that have staked their reputations on student performance will find ways to make sure their best teachers receive enough extra money to keep them and their spouses happy, and allow them to continue to work in the most congenial circumstances.

FOCUS should wait and see what effect the new contract really has. Moving against it would send the wrong message at a time when many districts are trying to improve the way they pay and motivate teachers. The new compensation plan in Prince William County reported by my colleague Michael Alison Chandler is a good example of the creative efforts going on all over the region. New gains in D.C. reading achievement reported by my colleague Nick Anderson also suggest this is a bad time to be challenging Rhee, who Post columnist Bob McCartney concludes is more popular than the mayor, and whose successes may determine the outcome of the city election.

The threat of charters suing the D.C. schools may have one beneficial effect. It may persuade many D.C. teachers who don't like Rhee to vote for the new contract because that might upset the charters, which many of them also don't like. It would be better, however, if we tried to heal the breach between charter people and regular school people, rather than exacerbate it.

Weren't charters created in part to encourage healthy competition between different forms of public schooling? Rhee is giving new flexibility on pay to principals, something charters have long had. Maybe charters can learn something useful from her effort to also raise those salaries significantly.

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By Jay Mathews  | May 20, 2010; 1:43 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Charters should not mess with D.C. teacher contract, Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, KIPP, Michelle A. Rhee, charter will not lose as many teachers as they fear  
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Jay, while your article is clearly designed to grab a few readers, you in fact so misrepresent the position of charter schools on the DC contract, that I cannot conclude nothing more than you choose to do just that.

The first line of Bill Turgue's article clearly expresses the views of charters, not just with this superintendent, but with all previous ones. CHARTERS DO NOT OPPOSE THE DC TEACHER CONTRACT. Charters do not oppose all children getting a first class education.

Charter schools, simply want the DC School Reform Act to be followed. Unless you can clearly, advocate for equal funding as is required by the law. Please don't misrepresent our position or our views. It, just frankly, is dishonest.

Posted by: dhense | May 20, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

"The threat of charters suing the D.C. schools may have one beneficial effect. It may persuade many D.C. teachers who don't like Rhee to vote for the new contract because that might upset the charters, which many of them also don't like."
--- You're joking, right?

Posted by: Concerned_Citizen2 | May 24, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse

Imagine Schools, Inc., is the nation’s largest for-profit charter school management company, with 71 schools nationwide and 11 in Ohio.

This report found that Imagine has a poor record of performance in Ohio and a business model that includes elaborate school real estate transactions, high management and operations fees, overlapping business relationships, low spending on classroom instruction, and tight control of school finances and board relationships.

Posted by: SpaaceMonkee | May 24, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

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