Welcome to Michelle's neighborhood

Three cheers for DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. After a grueling attempt to bribe the Washington Teachers' Union into accepting a generous new pay scale accompanied by teacher accountability, she has decided unilaterally to remove ineffective teachers without waiting for the WTU to assent.

On October 1, Rhee announced a new regime under which poorly performing teachers have 90 days to improve or face dismissal. She is thus demonstrating that union contracts are less of an impediment than most superintendents claim them to be--exposing once again the secret that risk-averse leadership is frequently as responsible for district inaction as is union intransigence.

Rhee's stance is pioneering in the world of K-12 schooling. For decades, the pursuit of "consensus" has been the unifying principle of educational leadership. While students languished, superintendents have been advised to seek just the right words, gestures, and inducements so as to entice all stakeholders to accept necessary changes--at least on paper, even if little or nothing changes in practice. That is district leadership, Mr. Rogers-style.

Rhee spent more than a year walking this well-trod path, promoting a contract proposal that promised a radical break with tradition, though not nearly as radical a break as many imagined. After all, it included large raises for every DCPS teacher--whether they opted for the "red tier" and retained their job protections, or signed up for the new and more lucrative "green tier," in which they would forfeit tenure and allow themselves to be evaluated and potentially dismissed in exchange for yet larger 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 already spending about $950 million this year to educate 45,000 students--$21,100 per child, or more than $420,000 per classroom of twenty children.

Given such resources, shouldn't it be possible in a low-performing public-education system to boost pay and reward performance without going back to the well for new dollars?  Yet, when it comes to district reform, such questions are almost never asked. The quest for consensus has prevented districts from reconfiguring budgets in sensible ways, as leadership shies away from controversial measures that might cause one or another "stakeholder" to demur. The result? Each new plan to retool troubled districts, promote accountability, or reward merit is tacked onto established, expensive routines and unyielding budgets.

Even Rhee's "radical" contract proposal largely hewed to this course. DCPS teachers who retained their accustomed job security would be in line for a 28% raise over five years as well as bonuses of $10,000.

But Rhee's Plan B breaks new ground. When contract talks stalled, Rhee turned to DC State Superintendent Deborah Gist (yep, DC has one--who knew?!). Gist had spent the better part of a year coordinating a thoughtful effort to overhaul the policy governing renewal of teachers' licenses. Rather than treat that renewal as a pro forma exercise (as is the norm in most states), Gist's new rules require teachers to demonstrate effectiveness. The result is a substantial new opportunity for a strong-willed chancellor and state superintendent to weed out ineffectual educators without having to buy off the union or seek its prior acquiescence. 

Superintendents routinely tell us that they would like to move farther and faster but their hands are tied by regulations and the need for consensus. Maybe. But research on collective bargaining and the superintendency suggests that plenty of leaders could be bolder, if they have the ideas, team, and political support--and are willing to break some china. (It certainly doesn't hurt to have the assistance of reform-minded state policymakers, too.) Rhee's move is another signal that she is not wedded to the consensus-at-all-costs strategy. It will be interesting to see if a little Wyatt Earp does more for D.C. students than a lot of Mr. Rogers.

Dr. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. A somewhat different version of this article first appeared on National Review Online.

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