September, 2008 issue of Labor Notes
The Washington Teachers Union is on a collision course with D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee over her plan to kill job security for teachers in exchange for merit pay—up to $20,000 a year in bonuses—and higher salaries.
D.C. is home to the second-highest number of charter schools in the country and a slowly declining school-age population. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who took control of the school system last year, believes the plan will get rid of bad teachers, motivate the rest, up student achievement, and raise the profile of a district that has lost 22,000 students and 1,500 teachers in 10 years.
But merit pay has been taboo in teachers unions because it pits teachers against each other, and because awards are often tied to students’ scores on the dreaded standardized tests. Teachers say the tests, loved by administrators looking for quick ways to measure student progress, are not only an unreliable gauge of learning but also a route to deadly dull classrooms.
In many districts, teachers already receive performance pay for attaining board certification, mentoring, or teaching in low-performing schools. Since the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind law, however, standardized tests have become the key measure of teacher performance and student achievement.
During 10 months of negotiations, Rhee’s proposals have created fault lines both within the union leadership and among its members. “This will attract teachers for the wrong reason,” said a veteran teacher and member of the WTU executive board. “Are they going to come for the pay or to make a difference for students?”
“I don’t consider this merit pay, because everyone would get a base pay raise,” said President George Parker. “This is incentive pay, which is a bonus for performance.”
When contract talks stalled in mid-July, Parker was criticized for convening meetings where the chancellor pitched her two-tier scheme to the local’s 4,200 teachers.
Rhee is proposing that current teachers choose one of two tracks, Red or Green. Both include $5,000 “transition” stipends for two years, and better benefits.
Red track teachers would get a 31 percent raise over five years. Green teachers would get a smaller raise, but they’d be eligible for merit pay—as much as $20,000 a year if they met performance standards.
Many teachers left the meetings seeing green. “I’m looking at a 73 percent raise in one year,” said first-grade teacher Steve Oberly. “If we did this program for five years, I would have a retirement nest egg.”
To get on the merit-based pay plan, Oberly, a ten-year veteran, would undergo a year of probation, after which he could be dismissed for under-performance. Though fired teachers can appeal to an elected body of teachers and administrators, the school principal has the final say. Teachers say favoritism would rule the day.
“This could lead to mass terminations,” said Candi Peterson, a WTU trustee and building representative. “And they could get rid of a position, when they really want to get rid of a person.”
All new teachers would join the Green tier as at-will, probationary employees for four years. Over that period, they would see a 20 percent raise and up their total salary from $50,000 to $75,000—if they survived.
Teachers who chose the Red program and got fired would receive a salaried one-year leave or, for teachers with 20 years’ experience, an early retirement package. Green teachers would get nothing.
The union would be giving up job security across the board, as both plans do away with seniority for the hiring, firing, or placement of teachers. “There is no such thing as a safe tier,” said Peterson.
WTU’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, recently elected Randi Weingarten to the union’s top spot. As head of the New York City teachers union, Weingarten negotiated merit pay last fall, and her elevation signals AFT’s openness to such pay plans.
As early as 2002, the AFT endorsed what it calls “professional compensation,” but highlighted the pitfalls: “questionable or difficult-to-understand assessment procedures” and “teacher morale problems stemming from the creation of unfair competition.”
Opponents say D.C.’s merit plan contains the same dangers.
“They’re going to ask teachers to vote on this plan before determining how we’re going to be evaluated for performance pay,” Peterson said.
Solvency has been the biggest issue for merit schemes. “Numerous plans have begun in the last 40 years but they flat run out of money,” said Rob Weil, of AFT’s Educational Issues Department. “They’re often programs that we love, but when they require new money, they lose their luster.”
Rhee claims her pay plan has private backing from the Gates Foundation, among others, but only for five years. When this money runs out, she promises to free up resources by streamlining bureaucracy and ending the outsourcing of special education.
Her 20-year early-retirement plan, however, relies on a squeezed district budget. The city already rejected proposals for a 25-year plan last year.
The contract talks have exacerbated the rift between Parker and WTU’s Vice President, Nathan Saunders. After Parker barred him from speaking on behalf of the union, Saunders sued Parker, members of the executive board, and Rhee, charging them with conspiracy.
Saunders’ litigious streak has served the union well. A 2002 suit he filed uncovered a $5 million embezzlement scandal that sent then-WTU president Barbara Bullock to jail for nine years.
Now, Saunders and others are filing an unfair labor practice charge against Parker and Rhee after revelations that two nonprofits close to Rhee hired several teachers for $1,000 a week to lobby their colleagues to accept merit pay.
Despite internal divisions, the WTU is opposing any proposal that attacks tenure, a legal right shared by all D.C. employees. Tenure rights ensure due process and recognition of years of service in staffing decisions.
Meanwhile, Rhee has closed 23 schools in the last year, leaving 600 teachers awaiting re-assignment just weeks before school begins. According to Peterson, 78 instructors were fired in June. “Even though we have due process under the old contract, we’ve had people illegally terminated,” she said. “Imagine what it would be like with a weaker contract.”
New teachers can’t be hired, nor can negotiations move forward, until teachers are placed. Rhee’s push for a mid-July vote before the AFT national convention fizzled, heightening scrutiny of her proposals, and making an agreement unlikely before school begins in late August.