Lesson from the New D.C. Teacher Contract: How Tight Budgets Can Aid Teacher Quality Reform

One big lesson of the D.C. contract is that context matters.  The tight budgetary environment played a big supporting role in the D.C. contract, in which teachers got a 21.6% salary boost and a bucket of bonus dollars in return for substantial concessions on job protections, seniority, and merit pay. Over at the National Journal blog, Mike Antonucci is absolutely right to point out the big new dollars in the D.C. deal but, as Mike knows better than anyone, those kinds of big raises are hardly unusual in K-12 schooling.  One reason these big dollars haven’t delivered much reform (aside from management timidity), though, is that teachers and their unions felt entitled to steady, substantial raises. There was no expectation that teachers would have to sacrifice for extra dollars. One silver lining in the ongoing financial crunch, as Rhee has demonstrated, is that teachers and their unions are suddenly more amenable to some horse-trading.

It’s no coincidence that a negotiation that stretched over nearly three years finally got done when districts across the land are dialing back raises and cutting jobs. As Tom O’Rourke, a veteran D.C. history teacher told the Post, “A lot of people say they like [the contract]. They like the money.” Bill Rope, a third grade teacher at D.C.’s Phoebe Hearst Elementary, said, “If you look across the country and see what’s going on … this union better take the money and run.” Judy Leak-Bowers, another D.C. third grade teacher, opined, “It is probably the best we are going to get.”

Reform-minded legislators, superintendents, and school boards: be advised. Whether in the midst of contract negotiations or struggling to find the dollars to protect teachers from cuts in salary or positions, this is the opportunity to ask teachers to meet you halfway. There’s never been a more opportune time to ask teachers to help rethink anachronistic policies governing evaluation, pay, or seniority, or an easier time for union leaders to make the case for compromise to their members. This is a win-win opportunity, if the parties seize it. Teachers, policymakers, and district leaders would do well to emulate Rhee and the WTU and not let this moment pass them by.

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