D.C.’s Groundbreaking Teachers' Contract Will Boost District’s National Prominence

News today that D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and AFT President Randi Weingarten have at last reached a tentative agreement on a ground-breaking teachers' contract for teachers in the nation’s capital comes with an added advantage for D.C. schools: it likely boosts their chances of winning the next round of the Race to the Top competition.

That’s because the U.S. Department of Education seemed to signal last month, through its choice of winners (Delaware and Tennessee) in the $4.3 billion Race to the Top competition, that it was particularly set on rewarding districts that had worked aggressively toward reform in concert with their local union. While teachers' unions and Democrats have a long history as allies, this administration has gotten high marks from critics for its pointed criticism of traditional union resistance to firing ineffective and abusive teachers, as well as its focus on rewarding seniority over effectiveness. But that doesn’t mean the administration wants to encourage open season on unions either. As one insider told me, reform-minded U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is trying for some balance; he’s giving the unions a big push toward reform, without pushing them over the cliff.

The D.C. contract has gotten a lot of national attention not only because D.C. schools have long been ranked at the bottom of the nation’s schools, but also because these negotiations pitted two of the most determined and outspoken figures in education reform nationally—Rhee and Weingarten—against each other. Both are known for getting their way, and it’s no secret they dislike each other.

As details of the agreement, which took more than 2½ years of heated negotiation, have become public, it’s clear that both sides got something and lost something. Teacher tenure—which Rhee hoped to abolishù—will remain, at least in name. But Rhee will have more freedom to financially reward her most effective teachers rather than being forced to follow a salary schedule dictated by seniority and formal education. She also gains more latitude in transferring, assigning, and laying off teachers without regard to seniority.

At the same time, teachers will gain expanded opportunities for professional support, increased feedback, and training aimed at improving their classroom effectiveness. They’ll also get a big pay raise, 20 percent over five years, with three years of retroactive pay hikes coming immediately after ratification. That’s particularly noteworthy in a recessionary environment that forced Detroit teachers to agree to a recent 10 percent pay cut. In one of the most unusual twists in this contract, most of the money for these raises will come from outside foundations committed to aggressive reform. These groups are clearly hoping that if the reforms prove successful in  D.C., they will more easily be included in big-city teacher contracts elsewhere.

Proof that the union sees this contract as revolutionary and experimental can be seen in a fascinating bit of editing regarding Weingarten’s quote that was accidentally included in the AFT’s press release on the deal. The original draft stressed only that this agreement was “specific and unique” to the “circumstances in Washington, D.C.” But in the final draft, that remark was moved farther down and replaced with language that this agreement was proof that collective bargaining should be viewed “as a vehicle for change, to create a path to school improvement and student success” and that the “no one—not parents and not teachers–wants the status quo.” If Weingarten’s edits were meant to signal the fact that she hears the drumbeat for proof that the union really wants reform—in actions as well as words—that’s a welcome message.