No More Mr. Rogers
Michelle Rhee is getting tough with teachers-union obstructionism.


Frederick M. Hess

Good for District of Columbia public-school chancellor Michelle Rhee. After a grueling attempt to bribe the Washington Teachers’ Union into accepting teacher accountability by pairing it with a generous new pay scale, she has moved to replace ineffective teachers without waiting for the WTU to get on board.

Rhee announced a new system earlier this month in which poorly performing teachers have 90 days to improve or face dismissal. Exposing the dirty secret of K-12 leadership, Rhee is employing laws already on the books, but ones that most superintendents have been too cautious or too conflict-averse to use. Rhee explained, “[The] moral imperative of this administration is to make sure that each child gets an excellent education.”

This is big stuff. So long as tenure protections make employment an entitlement and DCPS is constrained from identifying and removing faculty who don’t make the grade, it is hard to get serious about school improvement. It is not teacher-bashing to observe that some teachers aren’t equipped to instruct their students or that struggling teachers impose heavy burdens on their colleagues. Indeed, the return of these teachers each year sends an unhealthy message to their peers — that this is not a profession in which excellence is valued.

Rhee’s stance is pioneering in the world of K-12 schooling. For decades, the pursuit of watery “consensus” has been the holy grail of American education. While students languished, superintendents have been advised to keep seeking just the rights words, gestures, and inducements to get all stakeholders to accept necessary changes. That is district leadership, Mr. Rogers–style.

Rhee spent more than a year walking this well-trod path in negotiations with the WTU. Her hotly debated two-tiered contract proposal included large raises for every DCPS teacher — whether they opted for the “red tier,” retaining their job protections, or signed up for the new and more lucrative “green tier,” in which they would give up tenure and allow themselves to be evaluated and potentially dismissed in exchange for higher raises.

The green tier would enable a teacher with five years of experience to earn upwards of $100,000 each year in salary and performance bonuses. To fund the proposed contract, Rhee has lined up $200 million in philanthropic support for the program’s first five years — with DC taxpayers picking up the tab after that.

All of this is in a district spending about $950 million this year to educate 45,000 students — $21,100 per child, or more than $420,000 per classroom of 20 children. A crude calculation suggests that DCPS could pay a median teacher salary of $110,000, earmark $30,000 per teacher in benefits while retaining $280,000 per classroom — or upwards of $630 million — to operate the system.

Shouldn’t it be possible to boost pay and reward performance without going back to the well for new dollars? In district reform, such questions are almost never asked. The search for consensus has made it impossible for districts to reconfigure budgets in sensible ways, as leadership shies away from controversial measures. The result? Each new plan to retool troubled districts, promote accountability, or reward merit is tacked onto established, expensive routines.

Even Rhee’s radical contract proposal has largely hewed to this course. Even DCPS teachers who retain their familiar protections would be in line for a 28-percent raise over five years as well as bonuses of $10,000.

Superintendents routinely tell us that they would like to move further and faster, but that their hands are tied by regulations and the need to forge consensus. Maybe. But research on collective bargaining and the superintendency suggests that leaders could be bolder, if they have the political support and are willing to break some china. Rhee’s move is another signal that she is not wedded to the consensus-first strategy. It will be interesting to see if a single Wyatt Earp does more for the District’s students than a lot of Mr. Rogers wannabees.

– Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review