When I interviewed D.C. school Chancellor Michelle Rhee for a feature in the current issue of Reason, I asked if she thought she'd ever reach a deal with the teacher's unions. After well over two years of fighting, she surprised me when she said she thought the "tides were turning."
I quietly concluded that this otherwise hard-nosed lady had gone a bit soft in the head. To an outside observer, the chance of a compromise between Rhee and the head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, seemed vanishingly small. The two were talking a lot of smack about each other in public, and their positions remained worlds apart.
Rhee wanted to implement merit pay for teachers, greater hiring and firing power for herself and her principals, and an overhaul of the use of seniority in hiring, plus voluntary abdication of tenure protections by teachers looking to earn more money. Weingarten seemed unwilling to let D.C. become a test case for any of those reforms, lest similar changes go sweeping through the nation, undermining the power of the union.
But I was wrong about the texture of Rhee's skull. Because today The Washington Post is reporting that a deal has been reached. What's more amazing, the deal seems to preserve many elements of Rhee's original proposal:
The agreement includes a voluntary pay-for-performance program that will allow teachers to earn annual bonuses for student growth on standardized tests and other measures of academic success. It also calls for dramatically expanded professional development opportunities for teachers -- including school-based professional development centers -- and mentoring and induction programs for new educators.
The pact, if approved, will also afford Rhee and her school principals more latitude in deciding which teachers to retain in the event that budget cuts or enrollment declines force the closure of some schools....
The other major piece of the deal would allow officials more freedom in deciding whether to retain teachers who are "excessed" when schools are closed because of budget or enrollment issues. Under the proposal, teachers would be cut according to a formula that gives greatest weight to the previous year's evaluation. Seniority would receive least weight.
Rhee didn't get everything she wanted. Once the 103-page deal is made public, we'll see where she gave ground. And it's not all rubber stamps and roses from here on out. A lot of that cash Rhee is throwing around comes from private foundations, a fact that is sure to be controversial. Especially since some of the money is coming from known union busters, including the Walton Family Foundation (read: Wal-Mart money). There's a contested election for local union leadership coming up as well.
Those unable to find new positions in the system could take a $25,000 buyout, or retire with full benefits if they have at least 20 years of service. They could also spend a year searching while still on the payroll, although they would be subject to dismissal after that.
That last bit might sound insane in any other industry. But in education, it's a big step toward a more normal hiring and firing process. Which means a big step toward better teachers and better schools.
UPDATE: My D.C. school feature is now posted online. Read all the gory details here.