In what may prove to be an important development for public schools in the nation’s capital, members of the Washington Teachers’ Union approved a new contract this month that would tie improvements in student performance to bonuses for teachers.
The contract will also allow principals at up to 10 of the district’s traditional public schools to hire teachers independently of the district’s central office. Teachers at those schools could also be required to work longer hours, if needed. Those not wanting to participate in the pilot program would be free to transfer elsewhere within the school system.
Last year, Denver, Colorado teachers approved a contract tying future raises to improvements in student performance. Teachers earning advanced degrees or agreeing to serve in hard-to-fill positions also qualify for raises. Voters approved a property tax increase to pay for the program. At the start of the current school year, Washington, D.C. Superintendent Clifford Janey led a delegation of local education leaders to examine that program as a potential model for their plan.
The increasing popularity of charter schools here, in addition to what school officials describe as chronic problems in central office hiring and purchasing systems, had led leaders at some of the District’s best public schools to consider converting to charter status themselves. With the new contract, Woodrow Wilson High School in upper Northwest D.C., often considered the District’s best high school, has backed off its plan to pursue charter status.
Milton Friedman predicted over 50 years ago that with true parental choice, where tax dollars follow children to the school of their choosing, the resulting competition would improve performance for the benefit of all children. As school choice continues to gain incremental footholds around the nation, so is Dr. Friedman’s prediction.
Nationally, teacher unions have staunchly resisted moving to performance pay for their members. But the WTU has felt the heat of competition in recent years. More than 25 percent of students in Washington, D.C. are now enrolled in charter schools. “The landscape has changed,” WTU President George Parker told the Washington Post. “Our parents are voting with their feet…. Our very survival depends on having kids in D.C. schools so we’ll have teachers to represent.”
The Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program also continues to gain popularity and add to this competitive climate. More than 5,800 students applied to participate in the nation’s first federally-funded voucher program here in the program’s first two years.
But there are also signs that this trend may be spreading further. Also this month, leaders of Illinois’ two largest teacher unions both expressed a willingness to consider switching to performance-based pay. Governor Rod Blagojevich suggested making such a change, which would require union approval.
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