Teachers protest power play by chancellor

WASHINGTON D.C. – October 8, 2009 Two blocks from the White House, hundreds of Washington D.C. public school teachers, parents, students and labor activists today responded with a resounding “no” to what many see as a brutal power grab by the Chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools, Michelle Rhee.

The demonstration, called by the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU, AFT Local 6, AFL-CIO), came as an angry response to Rhee’s sudden move on October 2, six weeks into the fall semester, to fire 389 teachers and counselors without following minimal due process norms and without regard to the impact of these firings on students, some of whom report that effective and beloved teachers were suddenly terminated. The surprise and anger was all the greater since Rhee announced the firings as a budgetary measure, yet Mayor Adrian Fenty, in presenting the schools’ budget to the City Council, had not mentioned that layoffs were intended. Rhee had hired 900 new teachers last semester. An independent analyst, Mary Levy, looked at the budget and concluded, in a report passed out as a flyer at the rally, that there was no budgetary need to fire the teachers, since the reduction of income by the DC schools this year has been nearly made up by federal stimulus funds, and that the DC schools actually have 9% more money per pupil this year than last, with fewer students.

Rhee, whose background is in government and not in education, is part of a national current among school administrators whose philosophy is that schools should be run like private corporations, with a top down structure in which the principal is corporate middle management, and not a coordinator of a collegial group of educators. She has been criticized for firing principals whose schools were doing very well, allegedly because they did not agree with this corporate model. But the corporate model promotes the idea that a principal in his school should have absolute control over the teachers she supervises. The mindset that Rhee represents has a heavy emphasis on test scores as the measure of success or failure of not only students, but of teachers and principals as well. This is in spite of the many criticisms that have been leveled at this kind of test-oriented teaching. Rhee also seems to be working on the assumption that older teachers in general are “deadwood” in need of being cleared out to make room for bright new faces.

When Rhee fired the teachers, the Washington Post, as well as Mayor Fenty, jumped to the conclusion that they must be bad teachers – because she fired them, after all – and applauded the action. But it turns out that the decisions were largely made on principals’ say so. The much touted IMPACT evaluation program for teachers was only rolled out last week. In fact, the firings seem to have been based entirely on possibly subjective judgments by principals, not a coherent system of evaluation.

Anger at Rhee also encompasses her boss, Mayor Fenty, whose arrogant top-down style has led him into many clashes with organized labor. Organized labor was represented at Thursday’s rally not only by WTU members but also contingents from AFSCME Council 20, UFCW, D.C. Jobs With Justice and the Painters’ Union, as well as the Take Back D.C. coalition.

Demonstrators chanted: “A B C D, keep our teachers, lay off Rhee” and “One, two, three, four, escort Rhee right out the door”.

W.T.U. President George Parker did not shrink from associating Mayor Fenty with the criticisms of Rhee. “Mr. Mayor” Parker said “you assert that these are poor teachers, but these students would not demonstrate for poor teachers!”

The crowd was also addressed by AFT president Randi Weingarten and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. Trumka defended the teachers and added a national perspective: “Children are being made the victims of the budget shortfalls” with the elimination of valuable essential components of their education such as music and art classes. He denounced “experts” like Rhee and added that it could be that the crisis she fomented in D.C. with the firings was a case of incompetence, but he suspects that it was “not mere mismanagement but a cold, hard case of union busting”.

Benito Diaz contributed to this story.