Momentous Showdown between Michelle Rhee and D.C. Teachers Union

I earlier told you about the tough teacher union negotiations here in Denver that got resolved at the last minute. But there’s even more momentous negotiations going on in Washington, D.C. – a school district that has earned a poor reputation for wasteful and corrupt bureaucracy and dismal academic performance.

New D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (of Teach For America fame) is trying to clean house, though, as the Washington Post‘s Steven Pearlstein notes:

Negotiations are stalled over Rhee’s proposal to give teachers the option of earning up to $131,000 during the 10-month school year in exchange for giving up absolute job security and a personnel-and-pay system based almost exclusively on years served.

If Rhee succeeds in ending tenure and seniority as we know them while introducing merit pay into one of the country’s most expensive and underperforming school systems, it would be a watershed event in U.S. labor history, on a par with President Ronald Reagan’s firing of striking air traffic controllers in 1981. It would trigger a national debate on why public employees continue to enjoy what amounts to ironclad job security without accountability while the taxpayers who fund their salaries have long since been forced to accept the realities of a performance-based global economy.

It’s a pretty radical proposal that Michelle Rhee is putting on the table. Trading tenure for the opportunity to make more performance-based money? Sounds like what was attempted (unsuccessfully) in Colorado’s rural Ignacio School District about 5 years ago, but on a much larger and more dramatic scale.

Spurred by Denver teachers and leaders in tough schools, Colorado has made some small progress toward reforming the union contract – mainly through the Innovation Schools Act. But as far as imagining the real possibilities for instituting effective reform in challenging urban districts, all eyes should follow what transpires in Washington, D.C. Best of luck to Rhee and the reformers there.

More freedom, competition, accountability, and efficiency in our Colorado schools would be wonderful to see, too.