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Washington, D.C., Teachers Union Wrestles with the Legacy of Michelle Rhee

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

Bruce Vail

It’s been five years since self-styled education reformer Michelle Rhee left her job as head of the District of Columbia Public Schools under a cloud of bitterness and controversy, but she is still throwing shade over the Washington city school system.

Rhee’s open hostility to unions was a hallmark of her tenure in D.C. and of her subsequent career as an executive of the education reform group StudentsFirst. That hostility continues to darken relations between city officials and the teachers union, labor advocates say.

That was clear earlier this month when some of the teachers took to the streets to protest current schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson for her years-long stalling on negotiations for a new union contract. Henderson, a Rhee protégé who took over when Rhee departed in 2010, won’t come settle a new contract, says Washington Teachers Union President Liz Davis, and is adding insult to injury by meddling in the internal affairs of the union.

“[Rhee] is still here, but in the form of Kaya Henderson,” Davis tells In These Times. Rhee’s schemes for re-vamping Washington public schools have largely failed, she says, but Henderson insists on continuing Rhee-like attacks on teachers as a way to scapegoat the failure of administrators to make better progress. Most recently, Henderson delayed further negotiations on contract talks on the pretext that an internal Washington Teachers Union election is taking place, which Davis says is a clearly improper attempt to influence the vote.

“It’s Rheeism without Rhee,” remarks Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a pro-union education research group funded by the American Federation of Teachers. (The WTU is an affiliate of the AFT.) Evidence that Rheeism has actually succeeded in improving D.C. public schools is hard to come by, Casey adds, and the city continues to rate poorlyin many national rankings.

One of Rhee’s most visible initiatives is at the heart of the current inability to reach a new contract, according to Davis. A teacher evaluation system called IMPACT rates teachers and provides generous financial bonuses for those teachers who make high scores. Low scores, on the other hand, can be the basis for dismissal. The WTU is fighting for changes to the contract’s grievance procedures, Davis says, so that members can fight unfair evaluations. Negotiations are currently deadlocked on this issue.

Disagreement over annual salary increases is the second roadblock to a new contract, according to Davis. Henderson’s most recent offer was a paltry 1 percent.

Henderson Press Secretary Michelle Lerner tells In These Times that school “policy is not to comment on contract negotiations.” The old contract expired in 2012, but remains in place to cover about 3,500 unionized teachers, she says. A mediator has been brought in for negotiations to assist talks, she says.

Pay for D.C. teachers is very good, Lerner insists, with a starting salary of $51,259 a year that is the highest in the country (though cost of living in the city is also very high). Furthermore, the IMPACT bonus system allows veteran teachers to earn six-figure incomes. Despite the lack of a new contract with across-the-board wage increases, many teachers have seen rising incomes because of the bonuses, Lerner says.

Still, D.C. has a terrible time retaining teachers, Davis says. She estimates that there has been about 70 percent turnover since 2007, and “we are still recruiting 300 to 600 new teachers every year.” Many teachers feel there is a lack of support from senior administrators, she continues, leading to wide dissatisfaction and demoralization that fuels the high turnover rate.

Driving out older teachers is one of the unspoken goals of Rheeism, Shanker Institute’s Casey suggests, so union critics might argue that Rhee/Henderson have succeeded in that respect. Likewise, charter schools have exploded in D.C. over the last ten years. Nearly half of all public school students in the city are now enrolled in charter schools, while more than 40 public schools have been closed, Davis confirms.

Relations between the union and Henderson seem likely to remain fraught with difficulty, even if a new contract can be reached soon, Casey concludes. City school administrators have established a pattern of pushing charter schools, and Henderson has privately complained that Davis is less cooperative that previous union leaders.

“[Henderson] has difficulty with Liz because she is independent,” he says.

This post originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on May 25, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Court To Catholic School: No, You Can’t Fire People Because They Are Gay

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015

Zack FordA Massachusetts court has ruled against a private Catholic school that denied employment to a man because he was married to a man. This warranted unlawful discrimination on the basic of sexual orientation, the court found.

Plaintiff Matthew Barrett had applied for a job at Fontbonne Academy, a Catholic prep school for girls in Milton, Massachusetts, as a Food Services Director. After several interviews, he was offered the job. On his new hire form, Barrett listed his husband as his emergency contact. Two days later, Fontbonne informed him that he could not have the job because his marriage was inconsistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Fontbonne defended the decision, claiming its belief about the definition of marriage had nothing to do with sexual orientation. In fact, the school includes “sexual orientation” in its own nondiscrimination statement. But Associate Justice Douglas H. Wilkins found this distinction wholly unconvincing. “It is no answer to say that Fontbonne denied Barrett employment because he was in a same-sex marriage, not because of his sexual orientation,” he wrote. “The law recognizes no such distinction.”

Massachusetts’ nondiscrimination laws do include some exemptions for religious institutions, but Fontbonne did not qualify. The exception applies to organizations that limit membership to persons of the same religion or denomination, but as Wilkins pointed out, Fontbonne has no such limitations. “It does not require its employees to be Catholic. In particular, the Food Services Director does not have to be Catholic.” Moreover, “its student body has included non-Catholics, including Muslims, Jews, Baptists, Buddhists, Hindus, and Episcopalians.”

Fontbonne also claimed that hiring Barrett would have burdened its expression. This also failed to convince Wilkins, because Barrett “was not denied employment for any advocacy of same-sex marriage or gay rights; he only listed his husband as an emergency contact on his ‘new hire’ form. Nothing on that form suggested that Barrett claimed his marriage to have sacramental or other religious significance or that it was anything but a civil marriage relationship. Fontbonne presents no evidence of advocacy by Barrett.” Besides, there would be “little risk” that the school’s “involuntary compliance with civil law will be mistaken for endorsement of same-sex marriage.”

Leaving no stone unturned, Fontbonne similarly claimed that it deserved a “ministerial exception.” But Barrett would have no duties as an administrator or teacher of religious matters as Director of Food Services. Wilkins countered that “to apply the ‘ministerial’ exception here would allow all religious schools to exempt all of their employees from employment discrimination laws simply by calling their employees ministers.” It would defeat the point of having an exemption and case law that defines the limits of that exemption.

GLAD, the LGBT legal organization that represented Barrett, praised the ruling. “Religious-affiliated organizations do not get a free pass to discriminate against gay and lesbian people,” senior attorney Bennett Klein said in a statement. “When Fontbonne fired Matt from a job that has nothing to do with religion, and simply because he is married, they came down on the wrong side of the law.”

Barrett was “ecstatic,” saying simply, “What happened to me was wrong, and I truly hope it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

Damages have not yet been determined in the case.

About the Author: The author’s name is Zach Ford. Zack Ford is the editor of ThinkProgress LGBT at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, hailing from the small town of Newport, PA. Prior to joining ThinkProgress, Zack blogged for two years at ZackFordBlogs.com with occasional cross-posts at Pam’s House Blend. He also co-hosts a popular LGBT-issues podcast called Queer and Queerer with activist and performance artist Peterson Toscano. A graduate of Ithaca College (B.M. Music Education) and Iowa State University (M.Ed. Higher Education), Zack is an accomplished pianist with a passion for social justice education. Follow him on Twitter at @ZackFord.

This blog was originally posted on ThinkProgress on December 17, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

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