For the past three years, Washington, D.C., has been the front line of the battle between teachers’ unions and education reformers. Against staunch and strident opposition, Michelle Rhee, the schools chancellor appointed by mayor Adrian Fenty in 2007, has relentlessly implemented controversial reforms. A former inner-city public-school teacher, Rhee was determined from the beginning to transform the failing D.C. public schools, and, with Fenty’s full support and approval, aggressively pushed for a results-oriented overhaul of the system.
By any objective standard, the campaign succeeded. Since 2007, both elementary and secondary-school students’ test scores rose. Older students, in particular, made spectacular gains: Secondary students’ scores in reading and math shot up by 14 and 17 percentage points, respectively. High-school graduation rates climbed, jumping to 72 percent from 66 percent in 2006.
But it was a success bought at a high price: alienating the powerful Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU). Decried by critics as anti-teacher, Rhee fought for a new salary system, one that emphasized excellence over job security. She fired principals, laid off or fired hundreds of teachers, and recently placed another 737 on probation for a year, warning them that they faced dismissal if they failed to improve. She instituted new teacher-evaluation standards that partially relied on students’ test scores. And while she finally succeeded this June in getting the WTU to approve a new merit-pay-focused contract, it was only after more than two years of talks. Throughout it all, Rhee made it clear that she wanted to financially reward good teachers — the final contract included bonuses of up to $30,000 a year for exceptional teachers, thanks to partnerships Rhee orchestrated with private foundations — but that was never enough for those who valued teachers’ tenure above all.
So in the D.C. Democratic mayoral primary — which, thanks to D.C.’s heavily Democratic population, for all purposes determines the next mayor — the unions fought back. The American Federation of Teachers, the parent organization of the WTU, spent about $1 million in support of Fenty’s opponent, city-council chairman Vincent Gray. Their money was well-spent: Last week, Gray won the primary, defeating Fenty.
While Gray has not announced yet whether he will ask Rhee to remain as schools chancellor, few expect that he will. If he does, it’s highly improbable that he would be willing to give her the same unconditional backing Fenty provided, making it unlikely that she could continue to pursue controversial reforms.
The day after the election, Rhee called the results “devastating for the schoolchildren.” We agree. Without Rhee’s leadership, it is unlikely D.C. will continue on its current, reformist course. For thousands of D.C. children, the chance to get a decent education in the inner-city schools and escape the cycle of poverty will again disappear. The only winners in this election are the unions — and the lousy teachers who feel entitled to a lifetime of taxpayer-funded salaries.