Democratic politicians like to see themselves as champions of public education; but when it comes to picking schools for their own children to attend, their support disappears. President-elect Obama is no different than hundreds of other Democratic elected officials across the nation, from members of Congress to big-city mayors and city council members. The president-elect's daughters have been in private schools in Chicago -- and all indications are that they will enroll in one of Washington's elite private schools when the family makes its big move to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
That's too bad because it insulates the Obamas from what other families must deal with: a failing public school system that resists genuine reform. And in Washington's case, it deprives a courageous new school chancellor of what would be her most powerful constituents, the First Family.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee could use the Obamas' help -- especially in taking on the teachers union. Rhee has proposed a dramatic reform package aimed at removing incompetent teachers and rewarding excellence.
She wants to get rid of tenure -- a job protection that is no benefit to students and helps keep some of the worst performing teachers in the classroom. And she is willing to pay top dollar to teachers whose students make real progress. What's more, she will use private dollars to fund the increases. The extra money for Rhee's proposal would come from private foundations, which have already pledged an additional $75 million a year for five years, much of which would go to raise teacher pay.
Rhee's bold plan encompasses a voluntary, two-tier track for teachers. Each teacher could choose whether to enroll in the green plan or the red plan, both of which would increase pay but with strings attached. Teachers who choose the green plan could potentially double the pay they could earn, but they would have to give up tenure for a year and would then need a principal's recommendation to keep their job or face dismissal.
Those who choose the red plan would get smaller pay increases but would lose their seniority rights so that they could not bump more-junior teachers for school assignments if their own school closed or was reorganized.
The idea behind the plan would be to weed out the poor performers from those who were doing a good job, and reward merit rather than longevity. In other words, public schools would begin to operate like most other segments of our society: Those who failed would feel it in their paychecks and those who succeeded would be rewarded there. But unions don't cotton to merit-based pay, insisting that seniority is what really matters.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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