August 18, 2008

Washington Teachers' Union Battles Against a Salary Increase

They've got quite a case to make to the teachers.

The Washington Teachers' Union is fighting an interesting battle this month against Chancellor Rhee. Under a contract drafted by the Chancellor, public school teachers could opt to start receiving merit increases, and not just any run-of-the-mill merit increase—we’re talking real money. As much as a 20% increase in salary over a five-year period, which would bring “mid-level” teachers to an annual income of as much as 100,000 American dollars. I don’t know if my standards are the same as everyone else’s, but to me a number like that sounds very large.

But this is a real nail-biter on both sides. Chancellor Rhee says she wants to “revolutionize education as we know it,” and maintains the way we award teachers is the start of that process. In all honesty, her premise is correct—paying public school teachers a meaningful salary will make the market more competitive, eventually leading to people taking elementary and secondary education more seriously. If teachers are responsible for the future of our children (which they are), they deserve a salary and station that recognizes that undertaking. Our kids, in addition, would benefit from having the best and brightest competing for the honor of teaching them.

As with anything, however, there is a catch. In the case of this contract, the catch is enough to make the Washington Teachers' Union push to reject the salary increases. In order to be eligible for increased income, teachers will no longer have any seniority rights or tenure. On top of that, their jobs will rely entirely on the test scores of the school. If the test scores are not improving, teachers will be fired. The result being that, though teachers are making more money, they will have zero job security and will not know until the school year has ended if they are going to be pitched out before the next year. Given the Post article that came out today stating that results from last year weren’t acted upon until the first couple of weeks of August, that means teachers would be getting fired three weeks before the next school year started. Both students and teachers lose in that scenario.

This deal is even more interesting because it is an explicit effort to pit young teachers against experienced teachers. Young people, knowing they have many years before retirement, can teach in DC for five years, make good money, and then move on to some other school district that will offer tenure benefits and other amenities. Older teachers, who have been suffering bad pay for decades, will lose the only benefit they were assured—that the longer they stayed, the more intangible rewards (like seniority rights) they would receive. Even if these older folks opted into a “red” track instead of the “green” one, they would be one bad year away from losing their livelihood.

Of course, the Washington Teachers' Union has it’s own reason to oppose the contract. The deal is a pretty open union-buster. Teachers who sign a contract agree that they can be terminated without recourse, so any help the union can give is rejected from the outset. These sort of direct negotiations make for weak leveraging power on the part of the union, which (they would argue) hurts all teachers in the long-term.

Chancellor Rhee’s gambit is a risky one. She’s banking on young teachers being lured in by the promise of increased pay without a care for their future security. She’s also banking that these younger self-interested folks will be large enough in number to override the wishes of the older teachers in the union halls, forcing the contract through. I don’t know if either risk will end up paying off, especially since DC doesn’t have the money to actually pay for the salary increases it is promising, but with vocal support on both sides, the debate itself is shaping up to something worthy of the monumental impact the outcome will have.

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