Rhee ratchets up the attack on D.C. teachers

August 3, 2010

Brian Tierney looks at an effort to break the power of the Washington Teachers Union.

ANOTHER UNION-busting assault by Washington, D.C., School Chancellor Michelle Rhee rocked D.C. public schools July 16 when Rhee announced the firing of 241 public school teachers and warned another 737 that they would be axed in a year's time if they failed to show "improvements."

This major attack on Washington Teachers Union (WTU) members is based on Rhee's newest weapon for breaking the WTU--the chancellor's IMPACT evaluation system, a punitive scheme that ties teacher performance ratings to students' standardized test scores.

Of the 241 D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) teachers fired, 185 received poor evaluations. Another 737 teachers were deemed "minimally effective" and will be given one year to improve or face termination. If Rhee succeeds, it will further advance school privatization in D.C. and nationwide.

Ignoring the dubious value of standardized test scores and the numerous factors--such as poor funding for public schools--that affect the learning process, Rhee placed the blame for poor test scores squarely at the feet of D.C. teachers. "Every child in a District of Columbia public school has a right to a highly effective teacher," she said in her statement announcing the firings.

Washington, D.C., School Chancellor Michelle Rhee
Washington, D.C., School Chancellor Michelle Rhee (Iris Harris)

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty echoed Rhee's disdain for teachers who fail to meet the chancellor's unreasonable expectations in schools that are set up to fail. The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal also praised Rhee for "giving lousy teachers the boot"--and lambasted the WTU for daring to challenge the firings.

With one in four public school educators in D.C. either fired or put on notice, the WTU has promised to challenge Rhee's latest actions both with a petition to her office and a hearing before an independent arbitrator. The union will also likely file an unfair labor practice complaint.

"It's punishment-heavy and support-light," acting WTU President George Parker said of IMPACT. He has argued that the program is a "flawed instrument with many loopholes" and it should be piloted first before fully implemented. American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten criticized the firings and said Rhee has sent into motion a "destructive cycle of hire, fire, repeat."

However, to this point, WTU and AFT leaders have spoken out only softly against implementation of the IMPACT evaluations, and done little to actively oppose them.

What WTU and AFT leaders fail to recognize is that evaluation-based schemes for educator employment like IMPACT are not simply methods that need to be moderated in order to make them fair and useful. Rather, they are dangerous instruments for school "reformers" to strip teachers of basic union protections--and they need to be opposed outright and unequivocally.

RHEE HAS made a career doing battle on the frontlines of the free market crusade against teachers and public education. Her latest move puts D.C. even more at the forefront of the national movement toward expanding charter schools and a "flexible" workforce of non-union teachers.

That movement is currently being led by the Obama administration and its education secretary, Arne Duncan. Rhee's most recent onslaught is a bid to meet the criteria of the administration's Race to the Top (RTTT) program, which offered state governments the chance to compete for $4.3 billion in federal funding if they remove caps on charter schools and use student test scores to evaluate teacher performance.

By forcing states to compete for desperately needed education funding, RTTT is the Obama administration's main strategy for pushing school "reform" and making education a game of winners and losers. Rhee has fought to win RTTT money by attacking teachers and charterizing the school system in D.C.

So it was no surprise that a few days after the firings were announced, the U.S. Department of Education announced that D.C. and 18 states remain in the running to win a piece of the remaining $3.4 billion RTTT prize.

Recently a number of civil rights groups, including the NAACP, criticized the administration's competitive education funding policies. "If education is a civil right, children in 'winning' states should not be the only ones who have the opportunity to learn in high-quality environments," the groups said.

As Rhee's signature reform philosophy has centered on blaming teachers for everything, it was only a matter of time before her firing squad was deployed again. This time, she pulled the trigger after it was announced that elementary school student test scores in D.C. dropped, after two years of increases.

Under the school district's $4 million IMPACT evaluation system, 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation is based on student achievement and standardized tests. A survey conducted by the union found that most DCPS teachers thought IMPACT was confusing, and said they weren't adequately trained to understand the criteria which they are supposed to fulfill.

This isn't surprising. IMPACT is intended to attack teachers and weaken their unions by reducing the teaching process to the techniques of capitalist production. IMPACT uses student achievement data to measure teachers' "value added," a reference to student growth conceived in assembly-line terms. For Rhee and her powerful backers in business and government, education reform means commodifying education--with test score results used like barcodes.

BUT THIS most recent attack on DCPS teachers has also exposed the weakness of the leadership of the WTU, which failed to defend its members and has granted one concession after another to Rhee.

"Many WTU members believe that Parker's response to IMPACT evaluation has been reactionary and a little too late," wrote D.C. school social worker Candi Peterson in The Washington Teacher blog. "In union meetings during last school year, members insisted that Parker fight IMPACT as an evaluation tool that is unfair. These requests made by union members of Parker have fallen on deaf ears."

Under Parker's leadership, the WTU recently settled a concessionary contract that in many ways offered a green light for last week's firings. WTU negotiators agreed to Rhee's use of the IMPACT evaluation system, although the new contract also calls for an independent evaluation of IMPACT.

In addition to conceding to teacher evaluations based on student test scores, the new contract includes an unprecedented pay scale funded by private foundations. Under the agreement, teachers who opt out of tenure protections can receive merit pay that could more than double their salaries.

The WTU has been applauded by school "reformers" because it has "wisely negotiated and ratified a contract that gives the city greater leeway to pay, promote or fire teachers based on performance," in the words of a New York Times editorial. The agreement, however, was passed only after months of high-pressure tactics from Rhee.

In the face of such attacks, the need for a fighting teachers union could not be clearer. And many WTU members were hopeful when Parker's main challenger for the leadership of the union, Nathan Saunders, waged a strong campaign to replace the current leadership, vowing to fight Rhee and her reactionary polices and help teachers "reclaim our voice in the 'reform' debate as the experts in public education." As WTU vice president, Saunders has sparred with Parker over how to respond to Rhee's aggressive policies.

Unfortunately, the union elections, which were scheduled to take place in May, remain at an impasse due to Parker's refusal to submit the nominating petition for his slate. He claims the election committee did not reach its 15-member quota, and was therefore invalid. The other candidates' petitions therefore were also invalid, according to Parker.

This affront to union democracy reached greater heights when Parker transferred election duties from the Saunders-friendly election committee to the Parker-friendly executive board, which quickly moved to illegally revoke Saunders' salary.

Saunders has filed a lawsuit against Parker for undermining the election process, and Parker has indicated elections will now be held sometime in the fall. AFT President Weingarten has so far upheld Parker's undemocratic hold on power.

The election of a more militant WTU leadership could have an important impact on D.C. politics. Vincent Gray, chair of the D.C. City Council and a longtime critic of Rhee, is challenging Fenty for mayor.

Yet Gray has been evasive about his stance regarding the recent firings. Gray said he spoke with Rhee about the firings after they were announced and commented, "I want to look further at the basis for the dismissals." Although he supports fairer treatment for DCPS teachers, Gray has voiced support for charter schools and views D.C.'s competition for RTTT funding to be a key education priority.

In the meantime, Rhee has again asserted herself as a quintessential free market, privatization-driven school "reformer." Her success in that capacity is due not only to her backers in big business, but also to the weakness of the WTU.

The recent firings in DCPS need to be seen for what they are: an attack not only on teachers, but on public sector unionism and working and poor people in D.C. If Rhee has her way, D.C. will re-segregate its school system and create a series of elite charter schools.

Rhee's most recent attack needs to be challenged by a union whose leadership will fight for its members and mobilize them to fight back. And the struggle for teachers, students and schools must be linked to other local struggles being waged by the low-income, mostly African American communities affected the most by these attacks.

The need for an alliance of teachers, parents and students in D.C. to resist Rhee's agenda is more urgent than ever.

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