Telling lies to attack teachers in D.C.

April 22, 2010

Brian Tierney looks at the furor over the attempts of Washington, D.C., school officials to hide a budget surplus in order to cut teacher jobs and push a union-busting contract.

APPROVAL OF a supposed "breakthrough" teachers' contract for Washington, D.C., teachers is in doubt after anti-union schools chancellor Michelle Rhee admitted that she kept a $34 million budget surplus hidden during negotiations with the union.

Now, a leading critic of the agreement within the union can claim vindication as he seeks votes in May's election for president of the Washington Teachers Union (WTU).

A tentative agreement reached in early April between the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and WTU was hailed as a "breakthrough" by so-called school reformers because it allows teachers to opt out of tenure protection in exchange for merit pay that could boost the current maximum annual salary from $87,000 to $147,000.

To pay for the deal, the D.C. schools will get $64.5 million from four private foundations, including the anti-union Walton and Broad foundations, which have been deeply involved in the creation of charters schools outside traditional public school systems. WTU President George Parker worked closely with American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten to negotiate the deal, which took three years to complete.

Teachers and their supporters rallied against Michelle Rhee's announcement of hundreds of layoffs
Teachers and their supporters rallied against Michelle Rhee's announcement of hundreds of layoffs

While granting a 20 percent wage increase for teachers over five years, the proposed contract would not only concede merit pay and privatization of teacher pay, but allows Rhee to retain her prerogative to fire teachers.

Rhee has been a leading national champion of school reform and the charter school movement, which aims to destroy public education though privatization and ruthless attacks on teachers unions. Merit pay--which ties teachers' salaries to unrealistic standards of student performance--is one of the main weapons in the school reformers' union-busting arsenal.

In 2007, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty abolished the school board and named Rhee chancellor of DCPS. Last fall, Rhee faced angry protests by teachers, parents and students after she laid off 266 teachers at the beginning of the school year, citing a supposed budget shortfall.

Rhee continued to claim that a budget gap precluded her from rehiring teachers. In February, as contract talks with the WTU were accelerating, Rhee learned that DCPS in fact had a $34 million surplus--but failed to disclose that fact to union negotiators. The source of the surplus, according to D.C. budget officials, is an accounting error.

"What is curious to many is that Rhee, who knew about this supposed math error much earlier this year, was not transparent and did not provide this information to the D.C. Council," wrote D.C. school social worker Candi Peterson on her blog.

Now, Rhee says she needs the budget surplus money to pay for teacher raises in the proposed contract--even though she already has commitments from the foundations to help make payroll.

Rhee may think she can get away with this because of the blank check she's been given by her powerful backers--which include influential media figures, well-funded school reformers, Mayor Fenty, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and even President Barack Obama. But this mess could stick to her anyway.

Teachers and D.C. City Council members were fuming following the budget surplus announcement, and the WTU renewed its court challenge to the legitimacy of Rhee's layoffs last year. The WTU's initial lawsuit to get the layoffs reversed was defeated after a judge sided with Rhee.

There's major fallout in D.C. politics, too. Rhee's leading critic is City Council President Vincent Gray, who hopes to defeat Fenty in the upcoming mayoral race. The council needs to determine what "strings are attached" to the private money used to fund raises, Gray said. And following Rhee's announcement about the surplus, Gray said, if he were a laid-off teacher, "I'd be about ready to put my hands around somebody's throat. People lost their jobs under a budget deficit that didn't exist."

Similarly, council member Harry Thomas said, "It is unconscionable that teachers have lost their jobs because of faulty data, and it is morally reprehensible to turn around and then use those dollars to fund pay raises." Thomas added: "I will be examining all legislative remedies available to reinstate the teachers who were dismissed."

Meanwhile, the budget scandal turned to farce when D.C.'s chief financial officer, Natwar Gandhi, disputed the chancellor's claims, saying that the surplus now being tapped to fund teachers' raises really doesn't exist after all. Mayor Fenty and Rhee are now sparring with Gandhi's office, claiming that he's backtracking on the initial budget analysis.

THIS LATEST twist has thrown the entire tentative contract agreement into question a mere week after it was presented to teachers.

WTU President Parker and AFT President Weingarten, who were originally urging WTU members to ratify the contract, are now holding off on the vote until the city confirms that there is sufficient money to fund the baseline 20 percent raises over five years in the collective bargaining agreement.

If the WTU does reject the contract in the wake of the budget-surplus scandal, it will send a shock wave through the union--not only at the local level, but also in the AFT itself.

AFT President Weingarten has staked her credibility on the proposed deal, which, if approved, will inevitably be seen as a model for other local union negotiations. Since Obama took office, Weingarten has tried to straddle a defense of traditional teacher contract gains, like tenure protection, with support for Obama's Race to the Top program, which dangles $4.3 billion in federal money to states and city school districts if they remove barriers to merit pay and charter schools.

In D.C., Weingarten tried to have it both ways--preserving tenure for those who want it, while allowing Rhee to tie the schools' fate to the agenda of private donors. Now, however, Weingarten has been thoroughly embarrassed by the budget surplus debacle.

"This is a very serious situation," said Weingarten. "It's serious for the kids who lost their teachers and for the teachers who lost their jobs. The moment that she knew there was no budget crisis, she had an ethical obligation to disclose that."

Even if it turns out that there is enough money for the new teacher contract, the agreement contains a number of concessions to Rhee's privatization agenda.

Of course, Parker and Weingarten touted the raises in the tentative agreement as a significant victory for teachers, many of whom will be tempted to approve the contract on that basis. If passed, the contract would be a big boost for Parker, who hopes to be reelected in May's WTU election. The pay increase is considerable, especially in relation to surrounding districts, where many teachers are facing pay cuts.

Nevertheless, the 20 percent hike over five years is the window dressing for an agreement that would advance Rhee's crusade to enforce merit pay throughout DCPS. The proposed deal would also allow Rhee to retain her powers to lay off teachers and cut spending.

What's more, IMPACT, Rhee's unpopular teacher evaluation system, would remain in place under the new agreement. IMPACT assesses student progress on standardized tests to determine a teacher's effectiveness. School reformers call this approach the "value-added" model of teacher evaluation, reflecting the reformers' intent to commodify education.

IMPACT is also a tool for union-busting. Since taking office, Rhee has used evaluations based on students' standardized test scores to fire teachers, including vocal critics of her agenda. She also bypassed negotiations to implement a dismissal plan that gives "low-performing" teachers 90 days to improve or face termination.

As one teacher observed on a popular teachers' blog: "Michelle Rhee has given herself a great storeroom full of weapons to get rid of teachers, and we have little or no recourse. What is a 20 percent raise if I'm going to be fired in July under IMPACT? Please read carefully, and don't let the money fool you."

The merit pay program included in the proposed deal also poses major risks for the union. It would allow teachers to make an additional $20,000 to $30,000 a year--in exchange for forfeiting job security and raising student test scores. But those who participate are first on the chopping block when budget cuts cause layoffs: those in the merit pay program would give up hiring options to teachers who opt out of the plan.

For their part, teachers who opt out of merit pay and face job loss, but cannot find a new position, could choose between a $25,000 buyout, early retirement or another year on the job to give them time to find alternative work. But even these options are tied to government and budgetary approval. And in any case, "low-performance" teachers who lose their positions would have none of these options.

In short, the proposed contract is a scheme to divide teachers and undermine tenure rights--which is why it is being funded by the likes of the union-hating Walton family and real estate billionaire Eli Broad.

For most teachers in the district, the involvement of private donors is a major cause for concern. If passed, the contract would allow the leading national forces behind the dismantling of public education to carry out their plan on DPCS.

As Paul Abowd of Labor Notes observed, "Rhee is a good investment for the foundations' corporate-style overhaul of education, which seeks to bust the unions, dismantle schools and turn them over to private charter operators."

THE WTU and AFT are again focusing on a court challenge of the layoffs. But a bolder fight needs to be waged, one that mobilizes rank-and-file teachers and couples militant action with legal battles in the courtroom.

Rhee is not invincible: despite her powerful backers, among D.C. residents, her approval ratings have plunged considerably over the past year.

But Fenty and Rhee are unlikely to be stopped as long as they continue to enjoy a docile WTU leadership in Parker's presidency. Parker has given a Rhee a free hand to attack the union, push for charters and resegregate D.C. schools. In 2008, Rhee went so far as to praise Parker as "a great union leader" and a "a great union president."

Thus, the May union election will likely be a referendum on Parker's record in dealing with Rhee. Parker's main challenger is Nathan Saunders, the current WTU vice president.

Saunders, who ran on the same slate as Parker in the last union election, broke with his former ally when Parker failed to stand up to Rhee. Saunders charges Parker with being an ineffective union president who has allowed teachers to lose job security, pay raises and benefits.

"I am not campaigning against an individual," Saunders wrote on his Web site. "Rather [I'm campaigning] against reactionary and political responses which continue to unnecessarily burden teachers and yield minimal gains toward a positive public education experience for our children." Saunders continued: "Teachers must be committed to reclaiming our voice in the 'reform' debate as the experts in public education."

A great deal is at stake in both the coming union election and the contract vote--which, depending on the outcome of the budget debate, could be many weeks away. The choice that WTU members make in both will have a major impact on the ongoing war over the future of D.C. public schools.

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