Backlash Against Teacher Firings in D.C. Tests Rhee’s Political Strength

June Kronholz is a former foreign correspondent, bureau chief, and Washington-based education reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

It’s hard to tell whether Washington D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee courts controversy or is merely dogged by it.  Either way, Rhee once again finds herself in the thick of it, just as her school-improvement efforts are starting to take hold and Washington had begun to exhale over her stick-it-in-your-eye style.  (See “D.C’s Braveheart,” for more on Rhee.  Her stormy tenure is being closely watched by school reformers, the teacher unions, urban educators and Congressional Democrats, who variously believe that the chancellor is either the troubled district’s last hope–or worst nightmare.)

On Oct. 2–with the speed and deadly accuracy of one of those laser-guided missiles–Rhee fired 229 teachers and another 122 office and building workers, with some of Washington’s most lamentable high schools suffering the deepest cuts. The Friday-night firings came one month into the new school year, and only weeks after Rhee hired 900 teachers to help open classes for the fall.

Rhee contended in a press release that she was forced to act because of a $43.9 million shortfall in her budget.  The local teachers union charged that Rhee was making an end run around negotiations over tenure and seniority rights, which Rhee wants to scrap. Those talks have been going on—and on and on—for two years.  (In an interview posted on the Education Next website today, Jason Kamras, Michelle Rhee’s deputy for human capital, explains the new teacher evaluation system that Rhee launched just before the firings (and which does not have to be negotiated with the union). All DCPS teachers will be evaluated this year according to the new system, and teachers who receive low scores on the new evaluation may be fired, whether or not they have tenure.)

The Washington city council, ever vigilant for opportunities to needle Rhee and her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, plans hearings.  The union says it has filed a lawsuit alleging age-discrimination.

However this latest set-to is resolved, Washington joins the swelling ranks of school districts forced to lay off teachers, cancel textbook orders, trim summer-school plans, raise school-lunch fees or take other measures to close budget gaps caused by falling state tax revenues.  The National Governors Association says 27 of its member governors plan to close state budget gaps by cutting education funding this year.  District superintendents predict worse to come in 2011, when federal stimulus dollars for education run out.

The dual problem for superintendents is that most of their costs are in personnel salaries and benefits, and that most personnel are teachers. Nationwide, personnel costs typically account for between 75% and 80% of school-district operating budgets, and that percentage is even higher in some Sun Belt states and inner cities.

You can’t close a hole as big as the one Rhee says Washington schools are facing by merely trimming the supplies budget and extending the life of the Xeroxes.  Eventually, staffers have to be cut.  Rhee hit on one way to do that; it will be up to the political process to determine whether it was the best way.  (For some opinions on this, you can listen to Ed Next’s Paul Peterson and Checker Finn discussing the teacher layoffs in their podcast, which was also posted this morning on the Ed Next website.)

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