In just a year on the job, Washington, D.C.’s schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, has already made more waves in the nation’s worst school system than all her predecessors combined. In doing so, she’s had to stand up to some of the city’s most powerful and vicious people — and in D.C. that is saying something.
Now, when most people in her shoes would be pulling back or at least holding steady, she’s doubling down. She’s going after the biggest of all the structural problems within the government school system: the poisonous system of teacher pay.
Looks like “tough young women who are new on the job but aren’t afraid to take on powerful, corrupt interests” is going to be the theme of the month in D.C.
For decades, the D.C. school system has been a union boss’s dream and a parent’s nightmare. Across the country, the government school system is shot through with featherbedding, rewards for mediocrity, and absolute job protection for even the worst teachers, all courtesy of your friendly neighborhood teachers’ union. But in most places these negative influences are counterbalanced by positive influences — for example, mayors, governors and (sometimes) even voters can pressure school boards for reform. In D.C., though, the whole civic system is so dysfunctional that for a very long time these positive influences were blocked from having much impact. So the system became by far the nation’s worst — loaded down with teachers and administrators who were there because of political patronage, and indifferent to how many children’s lives it was destroying.
Those days are gone now, and they’re never coming back. The system got so bad that support for reform reached a critical mass capable of breaking through the union stranglehold. By the turn of the 21st century, everyone with a stake in D.C.’s success, which ultimately means the whole country, was ready to back reform.
Progress has been made on a lot of fronts: vouchers, charters, closing surplus schools, trimming bureaucracy — you name it. Even the city teachers’ union now has a president, George Parker, who acknowledges problems and has made reasonable compromises with reformers.
To see how much has changed, just consider the amazing fact that about one out of every three public-school students in D.C. attends a charter school — government-owned but non-unionized, privately operated, and (most important of all) chosen by parents — instead of a regular public school. “We lost 6,000 students last year,” says Parker, referring to the number of students who moved from regular schools to charters. Six thousand students is over 13% of the city’s remaining enrollment in regular public schools — in one year.
Rhee isn’t the force behind charter schools or vouchers in D.C. She’s in charge of the regular public system. But the same widespread mandate for reform that made charters and vouchers successful have allowed Rhee to succeed with reforms like closing schools that were only there to create patronage jobs, introducing curriculum innovation, and taking on the unbelievable amount of bureaucratic waste in the system. And as vouchers and charters have sent a message that the system can’t take students for granted any more, the pressure for reform has only increased — strengthening Rhee’s hand.
Now, Rhee is taking a stab at the big prize. She wants to offer teachers the option of higher pay — as much as $20,000 extra, pushing some salaries well over $100,000 — if they give up their absolute job protections and their seniority-based pay scale. And she’s holding out to get it; labor negotiations over the city’s teacher contract have stalled over this issue.