Rhee-forming education

Patrick Gibbons

Serious education reform is getting some unlikely allies these days. Washington, D.C.'s new school chancellor, Michelle Rhee, has become a no-holds-barred agitator for genuine education reform – starting with the administrators and then the teachers.

After just one year, Rhee already has replaced 50 principals and dismissed 93 staffers at the central office. Rhee has even gone so far as to close failing public schools – something unheard of out here in Nevada. Beyond hacking away at ineffective administrators and school managers, Rhee is targeting the sacrosanct teacher contracts and their most perverse rule – tenure.

Rhee has stated: "When you are talking about a contract or a collective-bargaining agreement that has provisions in it that I do not believe are in the best interests of children, then I refuse to sign my name."

Rhee understands that tenure – a policy under which the mere length of employment makes it very difficult for teachers to be fired – creates a disincentive for hard work and innovation in the classroom. Older teachers are protected from competition from newer teachers, and older teachers only have to perform adequately and avoid being found guilty of a felony to avoid termination.

The elimination of tenure and the creation of merit pay for D.C. schools have become the main agenda items for Rhee, who is giving the teacher union no quarter.

Rhee's plan allows existing teachers to sign one of two new contracts.  The first contract allows the teacher to retain tenure protection in exchange for lower salary increases in the future. The second, or "green" contract, eliminates tenure and puts the teacher on a one-year probationary period and gives the teacher the opportunity to earn up to $131,000 if he or she proves to be an effective teacher. All new teachers would be placed on the competitive "green" contract which would, over time, eliminate all tenure contracts.

Rhee hopes that the monetary reward of higher salaries for good performance and the threat of termination for poor performance will not only boost existing teacher performance, but also attract high-quality educators to the nation's worst school district.

Merit pay for Nevada's educators would be an important step toward meeting our state's educational needs, and it is something our policymakers should look into without haste.