Washington, D.C.'s ailing public school system has been under intense scrutiny over the past couple of years. Michelle Rhee, the city's schools chancellor, has pushed reforms that teachers consider threats to their collective bargaining rights. In the latest skirmish, Rhee has fired 229 teachers and taken aim at a cornerstone of the teachers' contract — seniority.
The Washington Teachers' Union has sued to block the layoffs and taken its fight with Rhee to the streets, holding rallies where union leaders rail against the chancellor. At a recent rally, the leaders questioned why Rhee hired more than 900 teachers over the summer if she knew layoffs were on the horizon. They also disputed her claim that layoffs were a result of a $44 million budget shortfall, as D.C. schools have received millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds.
"Something doesn't add up," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said. "This is either tremendous mismanagement or malevolence of the worst kind."
The federation has been advising the local union since Rhee arrived two years ago. Union leaders have resisted Rhee's push for pay for performance and abolishment of tenure. Thus far, the local union's contract negotiations with Rhee have gone nowhere.
George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, says his dealings with Rhee have been strained.
"Where are we going, Chancellor Rhee?" he says. " 'Doesn't matter. Don't question where we're going. Do as I say or you need to be out of here. No one knows what's best for the children but the chancellor.' "
Resistance To Change
This month's layoffs have pushed Rhee's already rocky relationship with the union to a new low.
The tension is "unfortunate," Rhee says. "But at the same time, when you're seeing such a radical departure from how people are used to operating, you're going to get a lot of pushback."
Rhee insists that little else will change and improve if she doesn't do something about the quality of teachers. She says the union, by defending seniority and tenure, is a hindrance to change.
"The union mentality, to protect the jobs of its members at all costs, is not a viable strategy for radically transforming the learning outcomes for kids in this city," she says.
Rhee says her instructions to principals forced to lay off teachers were simple — keep the most effective teachers even if they're not the most experienced. But Parker, the union president, says Rhee's orders were to fire teachers opposed to her policies.
"I've talked to some principals who've said — they told us this is an opportunity for you to get rid of those loud-mouthed teachers," he says. "Anyone else you want to get rid of in your building."
Rhee denies that anybody in the school system said that to principals. Many veteran teachers who were laid off, though, say they were targeted. Emma Johnson is one of them. She's the only certified chemistry and biology teacher at Spingarn High School and she still doesn't know why she was fired.
"There was no reason given," Johnson says. "In my yearly rating since '96, I haven't gotten anything less than 'exceeding expectations.' "
Johnson is a tall, thin woman in her late 50s. She wears a business suit and holds a plaque from the Capitol Hill Kiwanis Club, one of dozens of awards she says she has received from business groups, churches and foundations.
"I'm very confident I'm going to get my job back," she says, "Because I'm a very good teacher."
'Our Kids In D.C. Can't Read'
At last week's rally, lots of students and parents showed up to support teachers and their union, but at least one person was there to denounce them.
"Our kids in D.C. can't read nor write," said Annie Mayo, a 62-year-old grandmother. "For 20 years, two decades, this went on."
As the rally wound down, Mayo approached the stage where union officials were speaking. She squirmed out of a security guard's arms and began screaming.
"You all let your black kids not be able to read or write," she said. "You [teachers] did it, not Rhee; you all did it."
Mayo is a reminder that parents in the nation's capital are tired and frustrated. For decades, they've waited for good teachers and good schools, and they're still waiting for someone to be held accountable for providing them.