Why D.C. Teachers Will Eventually Accept Merit Pay (Hint: Survival)
Right now, it looks like D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee's plan to strip the city's teachers of their seniority and tenure rights in exchange for huge pay increases has run into a wall of opposition from union members who value security over a meatier paycheck.
The hurricane of change that Rhee represents is scary enough to many teachers that they are ready to say No to raises that could send their salaries over the $100,000 mark.
But there is a reason the teachers' own union president, George Parker, has been working with Rhee on finding a palatable way to accept the chancellor's bid to sack lousy teachers: Parker recognizes that unless the regular public schools start competing effectively against the city's 56 charter schools, his members will find themselves losing their jobs anyway, as the public schools continue to shrink at a rapid pace.
In an interview with Teacher Quality Bulletin, a publication of the National Council on Teacher Quality, Parker, president of the Washington Teachers Union, spells out the problem his membership faces:
The union has now had to take on a dual role. Previously our main concern was bread and butter issues--to make sure teachers have good benefits and working conditions. We didn't have to be that concerned about keeping children in [D.C. schools]. But now around 21,000 of our students are in charters and around 45,000 in public schools. We lost 6,000 students last year. The charter schools have created a competition where the very survival of the union and the job security of our teachers is not dependent on the language in our contract. It is dependent on our ability to recruit and maintain students because we are funded pretty much by the number of students we have enrolled in the public system.
It puts the union in a different light. It's not just the contract that protects jobs but also student enrollment.... The more students we have, the more teachers we can employ, and the more security we can develop in terms of jobs.
But of course, as much as Parker may see an advantage in cutting a deal with Rhee, other union officials and many members do not. Union activists such as Nathan Saunders and Jerome Brocks, who joined me on Raw Fisher Radio recently, see the merit pay plan as a direct assault on the jobs of many of their colleagues. "I'm not giving up my seniority no matter how much money they throw at me," Brocks said. "Teachers are doing a terrific job."
And Parker himself has enough doubts that he has resisted bringing the Rhee plan to a vote of his membership.
But there are a good many younger teachers who support the idea of incentive bonuses for high-performing teachers, and union chief Parker has been struggling to find a way to embrace that idea while still claiming to oppose merit pay. He says he rejects tying teachers' base salaries to performance measures, but "I do believe [in] incentive bonuses for teachers willing to spend more time and do more and [who] are willing and are able to accomplish more. They should be rewarded." That's potentially a position Rhee can work with.
Parker sounds like a man who sees that he has driven one set of policies about as far as they can go, and it's now time to try something new: "All of us realize that something has to change in DCPS," he says in that interview. "We have been at the bottom of the totem pole for a pretty long time. We have to do something different to be successful."
But in all likelihood, that something different will await Rhee's mysterious "Plan B," her response to a possible teachers' vote against her merit pay plan. The Post's Bill Turque has the first details of "Plan B" in today's paper, and it looks like an end run around the teachers' current protections--a move that will surely enrage many union members. But in Parker, the chancellor at least finally has a union chief who sees the connection between parents who are voting with their feet and teachers who must adapt or lose their jobs.
By Marc Fisher |
September 8, 2008; 8:09 AM ET
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