People, Politics & Business

Scoundrels, Educrats, Rogues and Champions

In The Arena: Teacher Union Head Weingarten Vs. School Reformer Rhee

CJ Westerberg, March 9, 2010 11:19 AM

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Newsweek Riffs About Education: 
The Randi Weingarten Vs. Michelle Rhee Saga

"It has an almost gladiatorial aspect to it."  - Chester Finn, Jr.

Newsweek dedicates its cover this week to "The Key to Saving American Education."   One article that was particularly skewering was a recap of the jostling and positioning of Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union head vs. high-profile DC school reformer, Michelle Rhee.   Link to articles here.   An excerpt:

" . . .Weingarten and Rhee are the two principal actors on the most important stage in the ongoing drama of school reform in America. Almost three years ago, Rhee was brought in to fix what was arguably the worst school system in America. The public schools in the nation's capital were notorious for high costs and low performance. Rhee has taken direct aim at the holy grail of the teachers' union: the common practice of giving public-school teachers lifetime tenure under rules that make firing a teacher, no matter how incompetent, very difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. Rhee attempted to abolish tenure in exchange for offering merit pay--teachers who agreed to be judged by their performance could make up to $130,000 a year. But Rhee's offer was never even put to a vote by the union. Rhee ran directly into Weingarten, whose union represents the bulk of teachers in big cities across America.

Weingarten, a media-savvy and clever lawyer, can see that the days are fast ending when the teachers' union can count on the support of the Democratic Party and the passivity of the education establishment to protect teachers with near impunity. But she is putting up a spirited rear-guard action to preserve the long-established job security of her union members. The two women have been locked in negotiations for a new union contract in D.C. for more than two years. The battle is being closely watched at the White House, where President Obama has backed his reform-minded education secretary, Arne Duncan, and by school administrators and politicians all over the country. Rhee has a chance to set a strong example for weeding out incompetent teachers--if she doesn't overplay her hand against Weingarten, who is a formidable foe. "You have two strong-willed and very smart and determined women with very different agendas," says Chester Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary of education and a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. "It has an almost gladiatorial aspect to it."


Among the articles were "Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers", which is mainly a round-up of news and events surrounding the power of teachers' unions, such as the recent Central Falls case, which The Daily Riff previously reported here, here and here,  and "Why Teachers Can't Control Their Classrooms", which is a quick overview of an issue addressed extensively in The New York Times cover story this weekend, "Building Better Teachers," covered by The Daily Riff here.

Education on its way into the mainstream . . .
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