Layoff ax falls in D.C. schools

October 15, 2009

Brian Tierney reports on the latest move by Washington, D.C.'s union-busting schools chancellor--and the protests that greeted it.

ANGER ERUPTED at Washington, D.C., public schools October 2 after Chancellor Michelle Rhee delivered RIF (Reduction in Force) notices to nearly 400 people, abruptly laying off hundreds of mostly long-tenured teachers and support staff a mere five weeks into the new school year.

Though a budget crisis was the reason given for the layoffs, the real reason is plain--Rhee is continuing her campaign to break the teachers' union and further open D.C. schools to privatization.

The community response the day of the layoffs caused what the Washington Post described as "one of the most turbulent days in recent history" in the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) system. And six days later, thousands of students, teachers and workers rallied in downtown D.C. against Rhee's latest assault. The rally followed a series of smaller actions led largely by students protesting against the massive teacher layoffs.

After hiring more than 900 new teachers in August, Rhee, with the backing of Mayor Adrian Fenty, laid off 388 DCPS teachers and other staff, causing unprecedented disruption and chaos at the start of a new school year. Among those laid off were 229 teachers, plus dozens of guidance counselors and custodial staff. Teachers who received RIF notices were told to pack their things that same day, and many were escorted out of classrooms by D.C. police.

Several thousand people rallied against layoffs of Washington, D.C., public school teachers
Several thousand people rallied against layoffs of Washington, D.C., public school teachers

Immediately, hundreds of angry students and parents protested, leading to two arrests, one student and one parent, outside McKinley Technology High School in Northeast D.C.

"It's absolutely ridiculous," said Samantha Miller, a fourth and fifth grade math teacher who was among those laid off. "This summer, Rhee told us that she's all about student achievement, and that the schools were understaffed. Now, at one school, they've removed 12 out of 40 teachers, all of them science and social studies teachers. That school has no science or social studies program now, and class sizes have increased to over 30 students per teacher."

The Washington Teachers Union (WTU), which represents the teachers, says that the vast majority of those targeted by Rhee were veteran teachers and guidance counselors with more than 20 years of service. They were also disproportionately teachers of color.

"This is about racism, retribution and retaliation," former McKinley counselor Rhonda Robinson told the AFL-CIO Washington D.C. Metro Council's Union City News. "When I asked to see what ranking system they had supposedly used to RIF me, they could show nothing."

Rhee is pointing to a supposed $43.9 million budget shortfall as reason for the cuts, even though D.C. received more than $500 million in federal stimulus money several months ago. That, coupled with the unprecedented hiring spree of new teachers this summer, led many to conclude that the budget gap is a ruse, and that these cuts have to do with Rhee's efforts to privatize public schools and eliminate the teachers' union.

"Fenty and Rhee manufactured the budget crisis by hiring too many employees as a way to fire tenured teachers through the reduction in force process, circumventing the union," explained former DCPS teacher Michelle Baskin.

Meanwhile, the district is spending $20 million to implement a new teacher rating system, according to Miller.

ON OCTOBER 8, several thousand teachers, parents and students assembled in Freedom Plaza near the D.C. District Building to rally against the layoffs. Feelings of intense community anger and frustration were palpable throughout the crowd.

The rally was endorsed and attended by a number of prominent labor figures, including newly elected AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who spoke. "This is a cold, hard case of union-busting," said Trumka, who pledged the labor movement's solidarity with the teachers' fight for as long as it takes. "Public education is the victim here...It is you, the teachers, who are the experts on how best to educate out kids, not someone who hires 900 teachers and then fires 300 teachers a few weeks later."

Glenda Smith, a guidance counselor for 23 years at Spingarn High School, received her RIF notice from a new principal. "A great injustice has been done to DC faculty and students," she told the crowd. "The motto of the DCPS is 'children first.' Well, last Friday, children were first to see their teachers disrespected and escorted out of the schools."

Smith went on to describe the consequences of Rhee's latest attack. One school now has no chemistry classes. Another has combined 9th through 12th graders into one English class, all being taught the same lesson. One D.C. student was transferred against her will from French 3 to Spanish 1 because her French teacher was laid off.

American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten also spoke. "Rhee calls this right-sizing," she said, "but there's nothing right about it."

For many, however, Weingarten's outrage over the cuts rings somewhat hollow, considering the AFT's timidity in confronting attacks on public school teachers. The AFT takes an equivocal stance on merit pay and gives full-throated support to the charter school movement, which is responsible for precisely the kind of privatization and union-busting Rhee is pushing.

Similarly, while the WTU provided chartered buses to bring students and teachers from throughout the district to the rally, many rank-and-file teachers see the union's response as too little, too late.

Miller said she would like to see a more militant approach, including walkouts and even civil disobedience if necessary. "The WTU has not taken enough action on this," said Miller. "The response is not quite what the situation warrants."

Miller said the layoffs were implemented in such a way that many teachers couldn't even say goodbye to their students. "Students build relationships with their teachers," she said, explaining why students have been such a large part of the community outrage.

A few days after the layoffs, over 200 students from McKinley High School walked out of class and marched to Rhee's office, and then to the D.C. District Building.

RHEE'S MOST recent move is the latest in a carefully planned offensive. Since she was appointed chancellor by Fenty--after the mayor abolished the school board and took charge of DCPS--Rhee has built a reputation as a ruthless, blame-teachers-first "reformer." Her "scorched-earth" campaign, as AFT President Weingarten puts it, has resulted in the closure of 23 schools, with another 26 set to be restructured. Thousands have been fired during her tenure, and Rhee has set her sights on stripping all tenure and seniority rights from the WTU contract.

For Rhee, who relies on programs like Teach for America and her "New Teacher Project," it isn't high poverty and lack of funding that plagues DCPS, but the teachers. What's needed, to her, is an army of young new teachers that will revamp the entire profession and get rid of union representation--while allowing themselves to be subjected to stringent and narrow evaluations of their performance, based on standardized test scores. At the same time, Rhee is encouraging the formation of charter schools, which siphon off funding from the public school system and make union-busting easier.

Rhee's war on public education is part of a larger pattern of undermining and privatizing other public services in D.C. as well--a campaign carried out by Fenty's administration. In the weeks before the layoffs, Fenty defied the City Council's recommendations and closed down 13 public child care centers in the district that serve mostly low-income families. He also closed homeless shelters and laid off hundreds of city workers.

For these reasons, Fenty has been branded a "rogue mayor" by D.C. activists and workers who have been the victims of his attacks. In response, labor and community activists in groups like Empower DC and the newly formed Take Back D.C. coalition have been organizing resistance.

In the wake of the layoffs in the schools, D.C. students are protesting, too. They recognize that they are expendable in Rhee's plans for the system.

"We're here because our education is on the line," one student who joined others in walking out of class told Union City News. "We have no teachers. All our counselors have been laid off. I'm a senior, I want to graduate, I want to go to college, I want to have a future. But how can I do that without a school counselor?"

At the rally, speakers called for the RIFs to be rescinded, and for Fenty and Rhee to be voted out. Yet the question of where the community goes from here in combating these attacks on public schools remains unclear.

Several City Council members assured the crowd at the rally that they would be holding public hearings on the issue. In the meantime, the WTU has filed a lawsuit with the D.C. Superior Court in an effort to get the layoffs reversed.

But given the scale and consequences of the layoffs--and their connection to a wider campaign against public services in D.C.--additional action will be necessary to put a stop to these attacks on public education.

The fightback that has already begun to take shape demonstrates that D.C.'s mostly Black and low-income public school students and their teachers will not be so easily made victims of Rhee's shock doctrine of school "reform."

Nothing less than a strong local movement that can mobilize the community--organizing citywide school walkouts, lock-ins and other actions if necessary--will be able to stop the rampage that Fenty and Rhee are conducting. Once they're forced to back down, community activists can turn their attention to the real problems afflicting D.C. public schools--poverty, inequality and a chancellor bent on privatization.

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