Why Did the Teachers’ Union Spend $1 Million to Defeat Fenty?

Should Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee have done less–not more, as I argued earlier this week–to build cooperation and compromise with the Washington Teachers' Union and other community groups skeptical of the Rhee school reform agenda?

That's the contention of Reihan Salam. Adam Serwer does a good job of explaining why, in the context of D.C. politics, union busting is just a really stupid idea. Indeed, as Adam points out, Rhee sometimes went out of her way to burnish her Democratic credentials by defending the Washington Teachers union when it was being attacked by conservatives like the Center for Union Facts, whose raison d'etre is not school improvement, but to dismantle organized labor and weaken worker rights.

So, you might be asking–if Rhee said nice thing about unions and the union eventually agreed to her bold teachers' contract, why did the American Federation of Teachers spend $1 million trying to defeat Fenty and Rhee? Why aren't they out there selling their role in a contract widely believed to be revolutionary and a step forward?

The answer, I believe, is that the bad blood between Rhee and the union goes back to Rhee's first months on the job, when she announced her goal of firing teachers and instituting merit pay well before she had developed IMPACT, her new teacher evaluation system linked to the district's curriculum. From a teacher's perspective it's pretty clear why a decent evaluation system would need to precede merit pay and firings: How can you decide who is failing if you haven't first defined success? 

Other cities with strong teachers' unions, most recently Pittsburgh, have embraced Rhee-like reforms without the drama that went down in D.C., in part because when the discussion starts off on terminations, instead of with a debate about what makes an excellent teacher (a complex question), a lot of people are going to get very pissed off.

2 thoughts on “Why Did the Teachers’ Union Spend $1 Million to Defeat Fenty?

  1. Derricknijel

    Why did the union need any help in identifying teachers who were not getting the job done? Was it really a mystery to them?

    How can they purport to be professionals, if their only standard is an ability to inhale, exhale and repeat?

  2. mattmel

    @ Derricknijel,

    FYI: By law, teachers in DC are precluded from negotiating on issues related to professional competence. As in many jurisdictions, this is retained as the highly defended perogative of administrators.

    The union has no say in hiring, assigning, evaluating, or tenuring DC’s teachers. This lack of teacher voice in developing a fair and effective system to identify struggling teachers is one of the reasons that Michele Rhee’s IMPACT program is so highly flawed. Look for major improvements under DCPS’s new leadership; they are needed.


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