American public school teachers don’t get fired. They just don’t. In New York City, hundreds of teachers spend all day in “rubber rooms” because they’re deemed too dangerous or stupid to supervise children but can’t be booted because they have union-protected tenure. In crisis-ridden California, the mildest of threats from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to cut back on teaching staffs led to an immediate rebuke from the White House.
So when 266 teachers were unceremoniously canned in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2009, the educators of America collectively slid their glasses down their noses and glared at the District of Columbia. Although 266 firings might not seem like a lot in a country that has lost 8.4 million jobs since December 2007, they could turn out to be more important to the nation’s long-term health than the $150 billion “jobs bill” legislators were debating on Capitol Hill.
D.C. is a divided town. In the heart of the capital, the federal government hums along, churning out paperwork and disillusioned interns at a steady clip. But the rest of the city is in pretty miserable shape. The District of Columbia Public Schools rank below all 50 states in national math and reading tests, squatting at the bottom of the list for years at a time. More than 40 percent of D.C. students drop out altogether. Only 9 percent of the District’s high schoolers will finish college within five years of graduation. And all this failure doesn’t come cheap: The city spends $14,699 per pupil, more than all but two states and about $5,000 more than the national average. Yet as unlikely as it seems, D.C. may prove to be the last best hope for school reform in the United States.
The District’s school system is sitting at the center of a remarkable convergence. A driven, reform-minded chancellor, endowed with extraordinary powers by the city council and mayor, arrived on the scene in 2007 just as the teachers union’s contract was about to be renegotiated. Charter schools are blossoming, with nearly a third of the city’s public school students now enrolled in nontraditional institutions. And a new presidential administration, which has been retrograde in other policy areas ripe for reform, has flirted with some of the more advanced ideas on the education front. Add an education secretary who has respectable reform credentials and a president who has two school-age children, and it’s hard to imagine a sweeter set-up.
One further advantage, paradoxically, is the city’s utter hopelessness. “D.C. schools have long been the poster child for paralyzing education dysfunction,” says Neal McCluskey, an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute. “It seems like they have a complete inability to educate anyone. Educationally, if you could save this patient, you could save anyone.”
But there’s a flip side to all these advantages: If D.C. can’t fix its schools in this context, probably no one can. And the first indications from the Obama administration have been ominous: As part of an omnibus spending bill in March 2009, union-backed Democratic legislators gratuitously killed a promising pilot program for school vouchers in the District. Meanwhile, the fate of reform hangs in the balance of a long, increasingly tense standoff between superintendent Michelle Rhee and the all-powerful teachers unions over the fundamental question of hiring and firing instructors. Depending on which side blinks first, education reform in America could be a long-lost dream come true or simply a lost cause.
‘You Don’t Want Me for This Job’
Michelle Rhee was an unlikely candidate to take over the D.C. school system, let alone wind up on the covers of both Time and Newsweek. “I was like the least obvious choice,” says Rhee, whose verbal mannerisms are those of a recent college grad. The person who suggested Rhee to D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty did so with a few caveats: “She’s 37 years old, she’s Korean, and she’s never run a school district.”
In fact, Rhee’s only in-school experience was two years in Baltimore as a recruit for Teach for America, a nonprofit that places new college grads in troubled inner-city and rural schools for two-year teaching stints. In 1997 she founded The New Teacher Project, another nonprofit, which brings highly qualified teachers—people who are credentialed in the subjects they teach—to public schools. She was busy running that project when Fenty called.
Rhee immediately told the D.C. mayor, “You don’t want me for this job.” With a bluntness for which she would later become famous, she explained, “If I were to take over the school district, the kinds of things that I would have to do to transform the district”—closing schools, firing teachers—“would just cause you headaches, political headaches. And that’s not what politicians want. Politicians don’t want the dirt to get kicked up. They want everyone to be happy.” Fenty swore indifference to the political ruckus, and, much to Rhee’s surprise, he has so far remained true to his word. Rhee enjoys near dictatorial powers within the system, thanks to the absence of a school board, and she has used them to the fullest possible extent. “The man has not blinked once,” she says.
Rhee has become the Great Korean Hope for school reform advocates around the nation and a lightning rod for criticism locally. D.C. publications follow her every move. Blogs are devoted exclusively to hating everything from her policy proposals to her hairstyle. Almost every move she makes draws headlines. And no wonder: Rhee’s approach goes right to the heart of a decades-long political debate about what schools really need, more money or fewer lousy teachers. On that question her position is clear: No real change is possible unless good teachers are hired and bad teachers fired.
Within months of taking office, Rhee foreshadowed the bloodbath that lay ahead by firing 30 percent of the school’s central bureaucracy. She commissioned an outside audit of school records. (Her staff is still finding rooms filled with unmarked file boxes and cabinets with no keys.) As her first year ticked away, Rhee staffed the human resources department with her own people, installed modern payroll systems, and generally tidied up the back office. Before her first school year started, she found 68 people on the books with no discernible duties, 55 teachers, three aides, and 10 assistant principals, costing a total of $5.4 million a year. She closed 25 underperforming schools (in a district that has 129) and replaced half of the system’s principals with candidates hand-selected by her personal staff and interviewed by Rhee herself.
In July 2008, Rhee revealed her opening gambit with the teachers union: She offered the teachers a whole lot of money. Under her proposal, educators would have two choices. With the first option, teachers would get a $10,000 bonus—a bribe, really—and a 20 percent raise. Nothing else would change. Benefits, rights, and privileges would remain as they were. Under the second option, teachers would receive a $10,000 bonus, a 45 percent increase in base salary, and the possibility of total earnings up to $131,000 a year through bonuses tied to student performance. In exchange, they would have to forfeit their tenure protections. To make good on her financial promises, Rhee lined up money from private donors; she has been close-mouthed about their identities, but The Washington Post has reported that likely contributors include Bill and Melinda Gates and Michael and Susan Dell.
Says Rhee: “I thought, this is brilliant. Everybody talks about how teachers don’t get paid enough; I’m going to pay teachers six-figure salaries! I’m going to pay the best teachers twice as much as they are currently making. Who could not be in favor of that? But people went ballistic.” Getting incentive pay required giving up near-absolute job security. “That,” she says, “is when the crap hit the fan.”
If Rhee has a model, it is Chicago, one of the only places in America where bad teachers can (eventually) get the heave-ho. In the Second City, failing schools can be dissolved and reconstituted. Teachers who worked at those institutions must reapply for their jobs, without seniority rights. Those who fail to get their old posts back are free to apply elsewhere in the city. If they haven’t found a placement in a year, they’re off the books. Just plain old laid off. There’s even a small merit pay program. The man who instituted this plan is Arne Duncan, who is now Obama’s secretary of education.