Washington’s chancellor of union-busting

May 14, 2009

Jeff Bale looks behind the media celebration of D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee--and finds an anti-union zealot carrying out a smear campaign against teachers.

"PEOPLE SAY, 'Well, you know, test scores don't take into account creativity and the love of learning.'...I'm like, 'You know what? I don't give a crap.' Don't get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don't know how to read, I don't care how creative you are. You're not doing your job."

Those are the words of Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), in an interview last fall with Time magazine. Besides the flippant attitude and narrow, robotic conception of what teaching and learning look like, Rhee's comments reflect her zealous mission to lay the blame for the crisis in D.C.'s schools at teachers' feet.

Rhee was installed as DCPS "chancellor" in 2007, when Mayor Adrian Fenty succeeded in abolishing the elected school board and taking over the city's schools. Since then, Rhee has embarked on nothing short of a "scorched earth" campaign, in the words of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

Rhee's first act was to work in conjunction with the city council to have all central office staff legally reclassified as "at will" employees. This effectively abolished union representation. Rhee marked the moment by firing around 1,000 employees.

Michelle Rhee has been a leading voice of the "blame the teachers" chorus
Michelle Rhee has been a leading voice of the "blame the teachers" chorus

As a teacher in D.C. public schools from 1997 to 2004, I know firsthand the chaos that reigned at the central office--payday was a crapshoot, papers and certificates got lost, making changes to your benefits was a nightmare, superintendents and their coteries came and went faster than we could learn their names.

Rhee's calculation was that years of frustration with the bloated central office would lead to support for the firings. But the further intention was clear: start with the easy target, then move on to the main event.

And that main event has been a "relentless" (one of Rhee's favorite words) campaign to convince the world that bad teachers are the only thing standing between D.C. schoolchildren--who experience poverty at some of the highest rates in the country--and academic success.

Since the first round of firings, Rhee has fired some three dozen principals and assistant principals, more than 250 teachers, and 500 teacher aides. She has closed 23 schools and promises to restructure another 26. Media accounts vary with respect to the exact numbers, but in an urban school system with just 4,000 teachers and 130 schools, the impact of these attacks is enormous.

RHEE'S PRIMARY goal is to get rid of tenure and seniority rights in the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) contract. And her strategy includes a pretty hefty carrot--increasing compensation for teachers who show success (i.e., raise test scores) to $100,000 a year and higher. In exchange for this dramatic increase in pay, teachers must agree to a high-stakes annual evaluation, which can lead to their termination if they don't show student success.

As of this writing, contract talks were in their 18th month and still in arbitration. But the plan has garnered an immense amount of attention.

The lucrative pay sounds like a good deal for teachers. In reality, it exposes not only the bankruptcy of the explanation of "reformers" for why schools fail our students, but also a backward and ineffective vision of what education could be like.

For example, many media reports about Rhee's ambitious plan make reference to the "research" and think tanks that "prove" the central factor affecting student achievement is an effective teacher.

The problem is that these references, when they are specific at all, are to the likes of Erik Hanushek and the conservative Hoover Institution, affiliated with Stanford University. Such think tanks are well known for generating "research" and reports with the conscious aim of backing up conservative explanations for what's wrong with schools.

Even if we accept the idea that effective teachers make a huge difference, Huffington Post contributor Dan Brown is right to point out the "myth that there is a shadow population of GREAT teachers, touched with something like fairy dust."

Rhee does believe that such a shadow population exists--and that they can be found among the ranks of programs like Teach for America (TFA).

TFA is a program run by a nonprofit foundation that is often (and rightfully) mocked as "Teach for Awhile." It recruits what it calls "outstanding" recent college graduates, usually from the top universities in the country, and after a summer crash course in how to teach, places them in struggling school districts on a short-term basis.

The entire logic behind TFA is based not only on the mythic teacher-hero, but smacks of the worst kind of snobbery. If that claim isn't clear at first, Rhee--herself a TFA alum--makes sure we get the point in an interview with Charlie Rose last fall. One of her defenses of the attack on the WTU contract is that huge pay increase will "attract a different caliber of person." This is a slap in the face of every teacher in D.C. schools.

In addition to the myth of the miracle-working teacher, Rhee's vision of what counts as student achievement is dangerously narrow.

First, and most obvious, is that the primary measure of "achievement" is standardized testing, which has been shown over and over to narrow the curriculum and, in fact, dumb down the instruction students receive.

In addition, a profile of Rhee in Newsweek points out another frightening aspect:

Rhee doesn't quite come out and say it, but she and her fellow reformers are trying to change the teaching profession, at least in the inner city...to something that bears more resemblance to joining the Green Berets...There are teachers who can maintain this pace [of twelve-hour days, six-day weeks] for decades (just as there are some older Special Forces operatives in the military), but in Rhee's world many teachers may find themselves working hard, burning out, and moving on.

This notion--especially when applied to DCPS, whose student body, workforce and community are overwhelmingly African American--is racist and insulting. The insinuation is that inner-city schools and the people in them are simply out of control--and require something akin to military occupation to solve the problem.

Finally, Rhee's plan to "fix" D.C. schools is profoundly un-democratic. This is true in the obvious sense that Rhee operates by pushing through her attacks by ignoring community and parent input.

She may have glowing words to say about WTU President George Parker, but Parker has come under increasing criticism for the lack of rank-and-file input into contract talks. His vice president sued him last year over freedom of speech claims, and a union activist was assaulted by a Parker supporter at a recent building representative meeting. Parker has turned to AFT President Weingarten to quash dissent and push through Rhee's contract, but this has only fueled rank-and-file criticism.

But the violation of democracy also takes place at a deeper level. Rhee has stated repeatedly that the only reason she took the position as DCPS chancellor is because the city council had abolished the school board. In fact, she regularly argues that school boards--democratically elected community members who oversee local schools--are another major source of the problem with public schools, not least because of union monies that she claims "buy" board members.

In D.C., however, this argument is especially outrageous. One of the major gains of the civil rights movement in Washington, D.C., was the formation of a democratically elected school board to oversee D.C. schools. To this day, D.C. does not enjoy rights as a state or any formal representation in Congress, and national lawmakers have veto power over city policies. Abolishing the school board was a major step backwards in terms of D.C. residents having a say in how their city is run.

MUCH OF the media attention on Rhee's attack on tenure and union rights rests its case on listing the dismal educational figures about for D.C. schools: eighth-grade reading and test scores rank last in the nation, only 27 percent of 9th graders graduate within five years, families are abandoning DCPS in droves for charter schools.

In addition, claims about per-pupil spending in D.C. being high relative to other school districts are never too far behind. The figures cited vary wildly--after all, facts matter little when you're waging an assault on D.C. schools and the people in them. But the point to these arguments is always the same--you can't throw any more money at the problem.

Apparently, however, the two powerful foundations run by billionaires Bill Gates and Eli Broad believe you can throw money at the problem--at least when the solution on offer is union-busting and shuttering schools. These two foundations have donated millions of dollars to DCPS since Rhee took over.

Rhee is known for backing up her argument about what's wrong with D.C. schools by stating that the education experience students get in the poverty-stricken Anacostia neighborhood and wealthy Georgetown are radically different. She calls this a fundamental issue of social justice.

She's right--but she refuses to acknowledge that the fundamental part of that difference is money. The PTAs for schools in upper Northwest DC schools have a long tradition of throwing money at the problem: they regularly raise tens of thousands of dollars to keep a teacher who otherwise would have been cut, or to maintain school libraries or arts programs.

For every statistic detailing the problems in DCPS, we have to respond by laying out the real crisis in Washington, D.C.--the crushing reality of poverty.

In 2005, in the capital of the richest nation on earth:

--nearly one in five D.C. residents lived at or below the federal poverty level, making D.C. the third-poorest jurisdiction in the U.S.

32 percent of children lived at or below the poverty, meaning D.C. had the highest child poverty rate in the country.

over half of D.C. children live in low-income families, meaning families making less than 200 percent of the poverty line. For a family of four in 2005, that 200 percent threshold was $39,942--in a city where the median rent in 2008 for a two-bedroom apartment amounted to $22,800 per year, the highest in the nation.

Any strategy to improve D.C. schools and the education students receive has to look beyond classroom walls and include a fight against this crushing poverty--a fight for health care and social services, and for democratic control over D.C. schools and the city itself.

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