UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

March 3, 2009

UNDERPERFORMING DC SCHOOL SUPER PLAYS FAST AND LOOSE WITH TEACHERS' FUTURES

Bill Turque Washington Post - D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has said a financial consultant's report shows that her plan to pay teachers as much as $135,000 a year in salaries and bonuses can be sustained with District dollars after a promised five-year, $100 million contribution by private foundations is spent. . . Appearing recently on WAMU's "Kojo Nnamdi Show," Rhee said an outside consultant, whom she did not identify, had vetted her compensation proposal. . .

Rhee's spokeswoman declined a request for a copy of the report, saying that documents related to the District's talks with the teachers union on a new collective bargaining agreement are confidential.

Rhee said that $200 million in private commitments -- about $100 million for salaries and $100 million for teacher professional development and other improvements to District schools -- remain intact despite the shrinking economy.

She has declined to name prospective donors publicly, saying that their funding is contingent upon securing a labor agreement that allows the District to reward individual teachers with merit pay, and to identify and expeditiously remove underperforming instructors.

The Washington Post reported on Aug. 3 that people who attended private meetings with Rhee said she named several foundations prepared to underwrite the plan: Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli Broad, Michael and Susan Dell and Robertson. The organizations have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in efforts to improve K-12 education nationwide.

The Gates Foundation said it has had no discussions with Rhee about teacher pay and said so again last week. Dell, which did not respond to a request for comment last summer, said recently that they were briefed on the proposal last year but took no action. Robertson and Broad have declined to comment.

Another major philanthropic group has been mentioned recently as a possible donor by two sources, one familiar with the contract talks and another with knowledge of the private foundation world: the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville, Ark. The organization contributed more than $100 million to education initiatives in 2007, much of it to charter schools and groups promoting school choice.

A Walton spokesman declined to comment. But in a November interview with Education Week, James C. Blew, Walton's director of K-12 education reform, said the foundation was looking for opportunities to work directly with school districts.

Union officials, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of contract talks, said they were concerned that the prospective donors' identities are being so closely held. They're also concerned that the prospect of heavy foundation financing may be driving the inclusion of certain elements in Rhee's proposals, such as merit pay and the dimunition of teacher tenure. . .

A collective bargaining agreement based on private funding would pose questions for the D.C. Council, which faces an $800 million revenue shortfall next year and an uncertain long-term budget outlook. The District's chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, has told council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D-At Large) that the council would be obligated to assume the foundation commitments if private donors were unable to follow through.

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