Citing changing economic conditions, D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced yesterday that her much-publicized wage proposal to the Washington Teachers' Union is now off the table. Rhee's original proposal would have dramatically raised teacher salaries in the District. Starting teachers--who currently earn $40,000 a year--would have earned $78,000 under Rhee's plan, with top teachers earning about $135,000 a year. In return, teachers would have given up tenure and agreed to have their pay based on measurable performance incentives. Although Rhee's plan would have given the currently employed by the D.C. public schools the right to opt out of her system--in other words, to keep their tenure and forego the pay raises--new hires would not have been given the same choice. For this reason, The Economist reported in July that national teachers' unions were leaning hard on the D.C. union to reject Rhee's proposal, apparently fearing that successful implementation of Rhee's plan would endanger teacher tenure across America.
Yesterday, Rhee said that revised budgetary projections for the D.C. school system were forcing her to scale back her original proposal. Interestingly, though, much of the money for her wage proposal didn't even come from public funding. As the Washington Post reports, Rhee's wage proposal was to be financed for four years via a consortium of private funders, at which point the D.C. schools would have taken on the responsibility for the increased wages. The list of funders that was leaked to the Post read like a veritable who's who of philanthropists: Dell, Gates, Broad, Robinson. Thus, not only was the Rhee proposal a bold move away from a lockstep, tenure-based compensation model, it was also an extremely interesting foray into public-private partnerships in education reform.
Rhee said yesterday that the private funding for her proposal remained intact, but, given the economic crisis, she had become uncertain as to whether the District could shoulder the increased cost of teacher salaries after the first four years. Although Rhee is going to submit a revised proposal, it now looks like the chancellor might not be able to (depending on your perspective) a) create a respected class of highly paid inner-city teachers, or, b) smash America's proud institution of teacher tenure. Still, I hope that Rhee's proposal will be remembered as a historic private-public collaboration for the benefit of educational reform. It's becoming increasingly obvious that state and local governments don't even have the money to maintain their current systems, let alone make expensive reforms. And the revised stimulus package suggests that the federal government is probably not going to swoop in and rescue beleagured school districts, after all. But a lack of government funding doesn't mean that educational reform has to come to an abrupt halt. Private donors have funded some interesting ventures in public schools during the past few years--witness, for example, the Kalamazoo Promise, which provides free college tuition for kids who attend the Kalamazoo Public Schools. If beleagured school districts are going to continue down the path of educational reform, they probably are going need money to do so. And with the state and local government rapidly falling short on funds, it's up to those Americans with funds to spare to act in the best traditions of American philanthropy and invest now in the future of this country.