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.
The unions' interest is solely in filling their own coffers with dues and maintaining their political power. An incompetent teacher who pays dues is just as valuable to the union as an excellent teacher, and the bad teacher may be more beholden to the union to protect his or her job. No wonder, then, the Washington Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, is resisting Rhee's plan.
The union is refusing even to put Rhee's proposal to a vote of its membership, reportedly because of pressure from the AFT's new president, Randi Weingarten. Rhee and Weingarten have locked horns before when Rhee worked for a nonprofit education group in New York City, where Weingarten also leads the local United Federation of Teachers.
Weingarten won her battle against reforms Rhee proposed for the New York schools -- but Rhee has a powerful ally in Washington's mayor Adrian Fenty. Now if only the Obamas could be enlisted to her side, Rhee might actually prevail in D.C.
President-elect Obama wants the best education for his girls -- what parent doesn't? But as someone whose own children attended D.C. public schools, I know what it means to push for reform of public education from within. The Obamas could send a powerful message if they were to enroll their daughters in the D.C. system, either in a regular or a charter school. And it would certainly give them a window into the problems those schools face.
But I won't hold my breath. Democratic politicians' support for public education usually amounts to spending other people's money and keeping their own kids out.