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Making Sense of the New DC Teacher Contract

Yesterday, DCPS and the Washington Teachers Union announced that they had agreed upon a new contract for DC teachers. After two years of stop-and-go negotiations, punctuated by occasional rifts between outsized personalities Michelle Rhee and Randi Weingarten, they settled upon a five-year agreement (with a couple of the years retroactive). Bill Turque has reported the salient details and the Washington Post editorial page has offered an enthusiastic endorsement.

A couple of thoughts on all this. First, the salaries we're talking about are really eye-popping. Starting teachers will potentially be able to earn more than $72,000, as compared to the current $45,000. Teachers will be able to earn as much as $146,000, up from the current max of $87,000.

Second, the famed "red-green" proposal is gone. This proposed to allow current teachers to choose whether to remain in the traditional step-and-lane pay scale and the security it afforded or to opt for a new, lucrative, performance-oriented "green" scale without the job security. All new teachers would have been hired into the "green" scale. That framework is not in the agreement.

Third, Rhee has won for DCPS the long-sought "mutual consent" provision. This means that schools can no longer be forced to take on faculty that they don't want. Under the new contract, teachers who lose their positions will not be guaranteed new slots. Rather, they will only be assured the opportunity to interview for available positions. If a teacher cannot find a school that wants to hire him or her, they'll be let go (teachers who meet "performance expectations" will receive one year of leeway).

Fourth, the contract takes a clever, less-confrontational tack on tenure and seniority. Unlike under the old "red-green" proposal, teachers aren't asked to give up tenure to get the big dollars. Instead, tenure is "redefined." DCPS documents explain, "This contract clarifies tenure to ensure due process rights for teachers without guaranteeing them a job for life" and that the "system must have 'just cause' before it can dismiss a tenured employee." Dismissed employees will still be able to fight terminations if they believe DCPS "did not follow the evaluation process." DCPS officials tell me the result is school leaders have dramatically more freedom; but only time will tell whether this language amounts to a velvet revolution, or something less substantial.

Fifth, on seniority, the win is clearer than on tenure. When employees are to be cut, seniority will not be determinative. Rather, DCPS will employ a performance-based rubric, with seniority making up 10% of that rubric. Instead of fruitlessly striving to "abolish" seniority, Rhee has taken the more nuanced tack of essentially diluted seniority into irrelevance. If it works as intended, it'll offer a powerful path for contract reform.

Finally, the $64.5 million question: The contract was funded with the support of $64.5 million in funds provided by four major foundations (Arnold, Walton, Broad, and Robertson). The question has arisen as to what this might portend for the sustainability of the agreement. It's a fair question. Indeed, in 2009, when the contract was going to be backed by $200-$300 million in foundation support, I voiced such concerns. With this new agreement, I'm much more inclined to give DCPS the benefit of the doubt for three reasons. First, the total wound up being just $65 million--down three-quarters from the figure that had been previously floated. Second, given that I'm guesstimating that we're only talking about $20-25 million a year, at most, I've full confidence that savvy leadership can find those dollars within DCPS's current outlays and projected revenues (after all, DC spent about $1.3 billion in 2008-09, all in). Third, so long as Randi Weingarten is on board, DC's contract can now be sold as a national model for district-union partnerships (who'd a thunk it?!), which has the potential to shake loose additional funds.

What now? Well, the agreement has gone to DC's Chief Financial Officer, Natwar Gandhi, for fiscal certification. If it passes muster, it will then go out to WTU members who will have two weeks to vote on ratification. If they ratify the contract, it'll then go to the DC Council for final approval.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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