Muriel Bowser
Muriel Bowser Credit: Darrow Montgomery

By most accounts, the proposed contract agreement between D.C. Public Schools and the Washington Teachers’ Union is a win-win for all concerned.

Mayor Muriel Bowser, eyeing a potential election-year challenge from predecessor Vince Gray, who couldn’t reach a deal with the teachers, stands to gain an endorsement and campaign support from the city’s educators.

DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson, a relative newcomer who inherits a school district rife with inequality and teacher discontent, distinguishes himself from the heralded but divisive Kaya Henderson.

WTU President Liz Davis delivers to some 4,000 members a tentative agreement that, after five years of tears-and-blood negotiations, they’d be crazy to pass up. 

But the real winners, should this contract be finalized? Charter schools.

The contract, which would be the first one proposed since 2010, delivers to teachers a 9 percent salary increase over three years, with 4 percent on the front end to be paid retroactive to last October. WTU members, who enjoy among the highest starting salaries in the country, will vote it up or down in the next 10 days. If approved, and then ratified by the D.C. Council, the $61 million, three-year contract will also allocate an additional $51 million to charter schools thanks to federal law that requires equal funding for operational costs in the two separate public school sectors. 

It’s a rosy deal for stakeholders who favor school choice and teacher accountability. “We are seeing a commitment to progress that comes at the beginning of the school year, which creates a sense of stability for teachers,” says Catharine Bellinger, director of the D.C. branch of Democrats for Education Reform, a political action group. “We’re happy our teachers will be the highest paid and most rigorously evaluated in the country, which will make us a magnet for the best talent.”   

Adds Irene Holtzman, executive director of FOCUS (Friends of Choice in Urban Schools): “I’m a former DCPS teacher, and I know that human capital is the biggest driver of success. When we put additional resources into pay and benefits and improvements to [teaching] services, it’s a win-win. It shows we are valuing all children in the city equally.”

Loose Lips, however, is inclined to dwell upon that language of equality. Under the proposed contract, the same proportion of funds that DCPS allocates to teachers’ salaries goes to charter schools as well—but without any requirement that the charters spend the extra budget money on teachers. Such is the effect of the per-pupil formula that gets applied to public school funding, with each child getting the same share per year. According to the federal School Reform Act, this formula also applies to charters.  

Except D.C. doesn’t always allocate funds through the per-pupil formula. In fact, DCPS has argued in court that it does not have to. In a lawsuit over equitable funding, charter schools are claiming that they are due an amount equal to the value of services provided to DCPS by the D.C. Department of General Services, which maintains the city’s public schools—but not charters—free of cost. In order to head off such claims in the future, the D.C. Council would have to pass a law that explicitly allows certain expenditures to take place outside the formula.

Economist Yesim Taylor, executive director of the D.C. Policy Center, finds this framework absurd. “Why are charters getting a raise?” she says. “Is there a policy reason for this? Does it make sense that education funding [for charters] is based not on policy but on [DCPS’s] ability to negotiate contracts?”

WTU President Liz Davis is in no mood to argue, much less worry about how the city plans to pay more than $110 million for what amounts to a $61 million raise for its own teachers. And who can blame her? She just scored a potential deal for a union that recently signed up 400 new members who will be eligible for those raises. “I’m not interested in how they’re going to fund it. I want to know that they can,” she says.

Besides, as charters have no obligation to spend their $51 million on teachers, those  teachers might appreciate the power of collective bargaining. “Because charters are being capitalized without lifting a finger, we hope they will respect the need of their teachers to organize,” says Davis, who regards the proposed contract as a sign that Chancellor Wilson, unlike his predecessor, is interested in a dialogue with the WTU. “He has indicated that he wants a more collaborative relationship,” she says. “I trust that to be the case until we see otherwise.” 

While Holtzman and other charter advocates defend the funding arrangement, Taylor is not alone in questioning whether the contract makes for good fiscal policy or will improve the learning and teaching environment in D.C.  

For instance, no one is talking about the cost of teacher pensions or, for that matter, other classes of employees who are due for new contracts. 

Budget expert Mary Levy cautions that the city, flush with cash, better hope the good times continue. She notes that contracts with other unionized DCPS employees, including custodians, principals, and clerical staff, expire in September, and that salary increases dating back to 2013 for more than 20,000 union and non-union citywide employees expire this year. “It’s nice as long as the money is there,” she says. 

For Levy and traditional education advocates, if not teachers themselves, money is only part of the equation. For the last 10 years, stakeholders have complained that Henderson, and before her Michelle Rhee, wielded student performance on standardized tests like a sword of Damocles over teachers’ heads.

“Teachers say it’s not about salary, and that’s why some of them make a lot of money and leave anyway,” says Levy. “But we can’t keep replacing them with the dream of having all exceptional teachers. We need to work with who we have.”