WTU President George Parker
WTU President George Parker Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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By all accounts, George Parker should have been mad.

Parker is president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, which represents some 4,400 employees of the D.C. Public Schools. In the spring, as a mayoral takeover of the school system became more and more a fait accompli, Parker had gone out of his way to give his organization a say in picking a new DCPS chief. The D.C. Council complied in the legislation authorizing the takeover, giving the union a pair of spots on a review panel convened to give recommendations to the mayor.

Things didn’t go quite as planned. Mayor Adrian Fenty and his top schools aide, Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso, had convened the panel as the law required, sure, and a pair of WTU members sat on it. But neither had been chosen by the union’s leadership, and in an organization as large and fractious as the WTU, there’s no guarantee any one WTU member will toe the company line.

Not that it mattered: The panel never actually reviewed any names, let alone saw any résumés. Rather, as one member later said, it “prioritized what the set of needs were in the schools and came up with a set of characteristics that a new chancellor should have, and we prioritized those.” Whether or not those priorities actually represented the priorities of the teachers didn’t seem to be a priority for the Fenty folks.

So by July 2, when Parker sat down before the council for a hearing on Michelle Rhee—the 37-year-old chancellor-designate that the WTU never officially got to weigh in on, he should have been ripshit.

Instead, the council heard some of the sunniest thinking this side of Carol Schwartz’s beach house: “In meeting with her, I left with a sense of optimism that Ms. Rhee has the capacity to get the job done, that she is collaborative….I left there feeling like she gets it, she really gets it,” Parker says.

The angriest man in the council chamber that day was Chairman Vincent Gray, who dressed down the WTU leader in his closing remarks: “I’m absolutely stunned that you all have come down here with this testimony today to say essentially that, ‘Well, that’s OK, guys, it wasn’t exactly what it was going to be, but it’s OK because the outcome was fine.’…and I hope that won’t happen again, because there will be other times when this union will come to this council asking for support on issues, and when we do that, we expect to be supported on the process also.”

Gray—who’s received a pair of WTU endorsements in the past five years —is one of the union’s best friends on the council. He’s one of the few councilmembers who won’t just rubber-stamp whatever school reforms Rhee will inevitably be pushing when negotiations for a new teachers’ contract begin this fall.

And if the past is any guide, those reforms will fall hard on the teachers. Alongside her teaching and nonprofit experience, Rhee boasts on her one-page résumé about her leadership of a study “detailing how teachers’ union contracts prohibit urban school districts from hiring the best teacher talent” and about her work to “radically reshape [the] collective bargaining agreement in New York City.”

And yet, given Parker’s cheerful take on the situation, he appears ready to say, “Have at it, Michelle: Take your pick of school reforms. Want to move up to an eight-hour workday? Or how about paying teachers based on their students’ test scores? Or maybe just a nice little salary freeze? Don’t worry about us.”

Meet the “New Washington Teachers’ Union,” as the organization is billing itself these days. Perhaps a decade ago, a more muscular WTU would have bashed any such ideas into oblivion. Under the leadership of imperious chief Barbara Bullock, the union won pay raise after pay raise, all while swatting away all but the most meaningless contract reforms.

But that was the “old” WTU. Later that year, Bullock would be charged in one of the most outrageous city corruption scandals in recent memory, leading its parent union to assume leadership for two years.

These days, the union rarely flexes its old muscle. Under Parker, it ratified a contract last year that began with an unprecedented statement of cooperation between the union and the school system and included stabs at theretofore taboo reforms. And now, Parker and the WTU are as upbeat as ever.

“I think unions in general have to step up to the plate and give educating children a high priority,” Parker says. “I think we have a full responsibility to ensure that our children are getting a quality education.”

“Educating children a high priority”? Who are you, and what have you done with the Washington Teachers’ Union?

Say you’re a teacher at a DCPS school—let’s call it Barbara Bullock Elementary. You teach reading to fifth-graders, and you’ve got your hands full—teaching at Bullock is a real pain in the ass because a head case just got hired as principal. She micromanages lesson plans; she takes forever to approve work orders to get even minor repairs fixed; and every time you speak up about anything, you find that your duty-free lunch hour ain’t so duty-free anymore.

The nice thing is, you’ve been in the system for quite a while. You’ve got almost 10 years of “system seniority.” Under the teachers’ contract, you can request a transfer to another DCPS school, and as long as there’s an available slot and you have more system seniority than anyone else who wants it, the job is yours, and the principal from hell is out of your hair.

If Rhee’s past is any guide, that system may not be long for the District of Columbia Public Schools. And WTU members have reason to get worried, because if there’s anything that teachers are afraid of, it’s not milquetoast superintendents or troublemaking kids. It’s bad principals.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

“A lot of things are blamed on teachers because we’re in the classroom, but a principal may not be doing something or we may not have the things that we need in order to raise achievement,” says Steve Aupperle, a teacher and WTU building rep at H.D. Cooke Elementary in Adams Morgan. “And then when we point that out, if we didn’t have those protections in place, the principal would just fire us, and that’s what’s happened.”

That helps explain why, for more than 40 years, the collectively bargained employment contract has been the holiest of holies for teacher unions across America—the cornerstone of any relationship between teachers and their school district. And for years, teachers’ contracts—particularly in large urban districts—have been chockablock with rules governing work duties, grievance proceedings, evaluation methods, disciplinary actions, plus dozens of other provisions. For instance, the latest contract between the WTU and DCPS runs to 80 pages, divided into 44 articles plus three salary schedules.

Rhee’s involvement with union contracts came out of her work with the New Teacher Project, the national nonprofit group she founded in 1997 to recruit college graduates and older folks looking for a career change to teach in urban schools. The problem Rhee encountered was that she’d recruited plenty of bright folks pumped to get their boots on the ground, but many weren’t getting hired by big-city school systems. Because the school systems weren’t hiring newbies until late into the summer or even after school had started for the year, many of the best recruits had already found jobs elsewhere.

The New Teacher Project did a study of the issue in 2003, and it discovered that one of the major problems was the prevalence of seniority-based transfer rules in teachers’ contracts. The group followed up with another study released two years later that focused on these types of rules.

What would happen, according to the study, titled “Unintended Consequences,” is that a veteran teacher would ask for a transfer to another school, and under the contract rules common to urban school districts, that teacher had a right to be placed in a new school with little or no say from its principal. Only after the teachers who had transferred or who had been “excessed” (that is, laid off from a shrinking or closing school) had been placed could hiring begin for the eager novices that Rhee’s group had recruited. Of five districts the group studied, none started new teacher hiring before late June, and one didn’t start until Aug. 1.

The consequences of these union rules, the study said, continue long after the hiring process. Because of the importance of seniority, new teachers are under constant threat of being bumped out of their schools by more veteran teachers who have transferred or been excessed (the “last hired, first fired” rule). Another problem is that because firing poorly performing teachers is almost never worth the trouble for principals, the transferring and excessed teachers are often the worst ones, bouncing from school to school, knocking around potentially talented young teachers along the way.

In 2005, Rhee put her findings to work for the New York City public schools. There, schools Chancellor Joel Klein—himself the product of a mayoral takeover, back in 2002—had come into office seeking radical changes to the contract with New York’s United Federation of Teachers. At one point during contract negotiations in 2004, Klein proposed replacing the 200-page-plus teachers’ contract with an eight-page agreement. The teachers, of course, were having none of it, and negotiations between the city and the union quickly soured.

The way union negotiations work for public employees in New York is that if the two parties can’t reach an agreement in face-to-face talks, they go to a state-run board that gathers facts and testimony and makes a nonbinding recommendation to resolve the impasse. Among the many, many items on Klein’s reform agenda was abolishing seniority-based transfer and excessing rules and replacing them with an “open market” system whereby teachers and principals alike had to agree on a transfer. Rhee appeared before the arbitration panel and presented her group’s findings.

Until Rhee’s outfit completed its study on transfers, she explains in an interview, there was never any solid data on their impact. “There were a lot of anecdotes…and I think once we actually came with the data, then it sort of changed the dynamic because then it forces people to say OK, if something that is currently in the contract…is not resulting in us acting in the best interest of kids, then we all have a responsibility to collectively sit down and make changes.”

Her testimony was convincing. In the end, the panel didn’t give Klein anywhere near everything he wanted—a full merit-pay plan was rejected, as well as reforms intended to make it easier to fire bad teachers, and the panel suggested hiking the city’s proposed 4 percent pay raise to 11 percent—but seniority-based transfers were axed from the contract eventually signed by the teachers and the city in late 2005.

Dan Weisberg, executive director of labor policy for the New York schools, says Rhee helped make the difference. “That was one of the major reforms,” he says. “There was really not much else out there showing in a research-based way that it was going to be a better system for the students and for the teachers.”

Under the new system, Weisberg says, “teachers are generally much happier. Many more of them transferred under the open market system than had transferred under the old seniority-based system.”

Ron Davis, a spokesperson for the New York teachers’ union, declined to say how happy his group has been with the new system but says the union has indeed moved on. “I’d have to say we have other concerns [now],” he says. “It would not be an ongoing bone of contention for the membership.”

Not so long ago, the Washington Teachers’ Union, under Bullock’s leadership, was lining the pockets of its members. With the support of Mayor Anthony A. Williams, the union in 2002 won a 19 percent pay hike, bringing DCPS wages in line with those in several suburban school districts. The breakthrough in pay slid through with political grease. Not only was the WTU one of the few unions to endorse Williams in 1998, but four years later, his campaign co-chair was Gwendolyn Hemphill—one of Bullock’s closest confidants.

Bullock, however, had been even more successful in lining her own pockets. In late 2002, she was revealed to be at the center of a massive embezzling scheme that eventually took some $5 million from union coffers (“Membership Has Its Privileges,” 1/24/2003). Bullock pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2003, and she remains in prison in Alderson, W.Va., due for release in November 2009. Her top aides, Hemphill and treasurer James O. Baxter, were convicted in 2005 of charges including conspiracy, fraud, and money-laundering in connection with the scandal. Neither is scheduled to be released before 2015.

The scandal had the sort of juicy details that have a long half-life in the public consciousness. Bullock spent more than $2 million on a shopping list heavy on designer names—St. John knits, Rosendorf-Evans furs, Tiffany silverware—charging much of it directly to the union’s corporate credit card. Baxter enjoyed Wizards season tickets on the union’s dime; Hemphill, a plasma TV. Besides the scandal, the union has had to weather the rise of charter schools and vouchers—developments that have drained about a thousand teachers from its membership since Bullock’s heyday.

In the wake of the embezzlement scandal, the WTU’s parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, took over leadership of the organization, installing one of its own administrators to get the union’s house back in order. After the AFT left in 2005, it was George Parker who nursed the WTU back to respectability.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Parker, 56, came up through DCPS in one of the toughest jobs in a school system full of tough jobs: middle-school math teacher. A former musician who occasionally moonlighted as a substitute, Parker started teaching full-time for DCPS in 1980. Then, in 1992, Parker started working for the WTU as a field representative, one of a handful of full-time union employees who are assigned to a group of schools to handle various labor issues. Five years later, he lost Bullock’s trust and was fired; he returned to teaching, to Eliot Junior High in Lincoln Park, where he remained a building rep, running unsuccessfully against Bullock in the 1999 and 2001 union elections. When Bullock was ousted, Parker again became more involved in the union’s leadership.

He got noticed as a guy willing to entertain ideas outside the usual teachers’-union wages-and-rules routine. Mary Levy, a longtime schools activist, met Parker in 1995 when both helped craft D.C.’s “Goals 2000” plan, a federally funded effort to plan ways to improve public schools in each state.

“He was just a joy to work with. I mean, he was genuinely concerned about the kids. He was interested in all the aspects of the reforms that people were trying to talk about introducing,” Levy says. “He tries to have good relations with everybody. I’ve noticed that when I go to meetings, there’s George, and he’s going around, and he’s talking to all different kinds of people. So he’s very good on the open lines of communication.”

Parker points out he had reformer bona fides long before that; as part of the team that negotiated the 1993 contract, he had a role in establishing what came to be known as Local School Restructuring Teams, school-planning organs comprising parents, teachers, and staff that remain a vital part of many DCPS schools to this day.

Since being elected president in 2005, Parker has certainly ventured into uncharted territory for a WTU head. For one thing, the last DCPS teachers’ contract, ratified in May 2006, included a remarkable let’s-work-together “preamble” to a contract that details the mistrust that has plagued the negotiating process in the past and describes a “commitment by the WTU and DCPS to jointly engage in the struggle to rebuild public confidence in the educational product offered by DC’s public schools.…[B]y this agreement, we hope to signal that we’re on the right track.” Beyond the warm feelings and platitudes, the union allowed a couple of surprising provisions.

For one, the contract proposed a set of 10 “pilot schools” that would follow individualized plans put forth by each school—plans that might well excuse teachers from many of the usual work rules. Perhaps even more radical was a proposed “career ladder” that would pay certain veteran teachers extra for completing additional training or taking on additional curriculum responsibilities—a plan that some see as a steppingstone to the “merit pay” proposals teachers’ unions across the country have long opposed.

“If you’ve read old union contracts, all they are is about hours and benefits and grievance procedures, and so it was a step,” says Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, a D.C. nonprofit. “I think it was the first time there was anything of even modest substance in the teachers’ union contract related to school innovation or achievement.”

Levy, too, noticed Parker’s willingness to innovate. “I was really surprised at the number of concessions [former superintendent Clifford] Janey was able to get from them…considering that the pay raise was mostly just enough to keep them up with the cost of living. Usually you pay for concessions, and Janey didn’t really pay much to get those things,” Levy says. “That tells me that the teachers’ union right now is interested in some of these things.”…

But, like so many DCPS reforms, neither the pilot-schools nor career-ladder proposals have gone much of anywhere in the year since the contract was approved. It’s hard to pin the blame for that on the WTU, though. Gina Arlotto, who’s active in Capitol Hill’s Stuart-Hobson Middle School, says her school applied for pilot status in the spring, and “nobody knows what the hell is going on.” Calls to DCPS about the pilot-schools program were referred to the WTU.

Says Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who’s taken an interest in union reforms: “I haven’t seen a peep about it. It’s just an idea as far as I’m concerned. It’s like anything else that goes into the maw of DCPS. It might have been on paper, but it never saw the light of day.”

According to Parker, the “career ladder” is a dead letter these days, awaiting implementation by school administrators, but the pilot schools program has moved forward since Rhee’s arrived. More than 20 schools applied for the 10 slots, he says, and DCPS hopes to finish informing the winners before the month is out.

In the six weeks that Rhee has been in town, she seems to have made a point of saying pleasant things about Parker. Here’s some typical flattery: “I have the utmost respect for George Parker. I’ve talked to and worked with many of the union leaders from across the country, and I think that he is among the best.”

Sure, talk can be real cheap when you’re the new kid in town trying to make nice. But Rhee and Parker do have some history. In 2005, they worked together on the all-important issue of teacher transfers, when Rhee was brought in as a DCPS consultant. Under an agreement reached that year, new hires don’t have to wait for all the excessed teachers and voluntary transfers to be placed first; all three groups interview for new posts during the same period. Not only did that improve the hiring timeline, as Rhee has long advocated, but the interviews themselves were an innovation. Before the agreement, excessed teachers were placed by the school system’s HR department without regard to the fit between teacher and school; now principals and teachers try to find a match. It didn’t create a wholly “open market” system, as New York now has—transferring and excessed teachers are still guaranteed jobs—but it was a significant change.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Whether or not the good feelings are for real will be proven in the fall; the current WTU contract expires in October, and Rhee talks about crafting “a contract that can serve as a model for other school districts” in focusing on student results and teacher performance.

Asked to get into specifics, Rhee mentions “thinking really carefully about some kind of performance pay”—the dreaded merit pay—and writing provisions regarding professional development into the contract. And Rhee isn’t seeing a lot of big-picture differences with Parker—just a lot of details to “slug out.” The goal, she says, is a “contract that we both think is pushing the envelope in terms of being progressive.”

Talk of “model” contracts and “pushing the envelope” is not really what a union boss wants to hear out of his superintendent. In 2001, for instance, a teachers’ union president in Cincinnati was ousted by a hard-line challenger after he had supported a merit-pay pilot program. In 2002 in Hartford, Conn., and a year later in San Francisco, union leaders were voted out of office after advocating positions that were too close to those of their school-system counterparts.

And it’s not just actual reforms that can cause trouble with the old-liners. Simply the perception that he and Rhee are getting way too touchy-feely can get problematic—when it comes to schools-union relations, there is such a thing as getting too close to your adversary. Just ask Joel Klein: After he and the New York union signed a largely labor-friendly agreement in 2005, he gave union president Randi Weingarten a bear hug in front of cameras at a press conference, and Weingarten nearly had a mutiny on her hands—no matter how awkward the hug might have seemed.

But the days of the WTU standing firm against school reformers have come to an end. For one thing, thanks to charter schools and vouchers, if public schools don’t improve, there might not be a school system left to battle before long. Since chartering began in 1996, the District has seen dozens of schools established. In each, the principal has almost total control over the hiring and firing of his or her teachers, answering in most cases only to a board of trustees. And parents have flocked to charters; last year, nearly 20,000 students were enrolled in 55 charter schools, none of them with a collectively bargained teachers’ contract.

But in the WTU, there’s most certainly an old-line thread more attuned to the Barbara Bullock sensibility. For one, there’s Jerome Brocks, a 32-year DCPS veteran who chaired the union’s political action committee before Parker took charge.

“I’m not impressed with Mr. Parker, bottom line,” Brocks says. “Parker should not be in bed with these people. He should not be friendly with these people. They should get nauseated when they hear his name because he should be fighting on behalf of the teachers.”

Beyond his distaste for Parker’s good-vibes style, Brocks is serious when he says he misses Bullock’s reign. “Barbara was a strong leader, and if the shoe was on the other foot, Barbara wouldn’t have stood for some of the crap that’s going down now. I’m sorry that Barbara did it; I have a lot of anger towards her for allowing Parker to become our president, because if she would have kept the leadership that she had, she would probably still be president of the union….Now, in my opinion, we have a weakling as president of my union. We don’t have nobody in there with backbone, somebody that’s gonna stand up to these people.”

Parker says he’s familiar with the political concerns of keeping the traditionalists at bay. “That’s a challenge for me daily,” he says. “Do I recognize that there may be some old hard-line union members who may feel that collaboration means ‘in bed with’ or ‘sold out to’? Do I worry about it? No, I don’t worry about it.…My challenge is not to get so far out in front of my members that they don’t understand where we’re trying to go.”

The most recent episode to stir Brocks’ disgust was when the Washington Post, earlier this year, published on its Web site a database of teachers’ names and salaries obtained through a public-records request. Dozens of teachers objected to the disclosure—never mind that public employees’ salaries are public record—but Parker refused to step in. “He said the Post had a right to do it through the Freedom of Information Act. Well, you know what, that might be the case, but you gotta do something,” Brocks says. “If I was president of the union, I would have got with the other union heads, and we would have had every employee of the District of Columbia Public Schools surround the Washington Post.”

Says Parker: “There’s some people who simply want to fight regardless of whether or not they can win. That’s old-school unionism, and it doesn’t get results.”

What the upcoming contract negotiations are likely to come down to is whether the union can maintain even a guise of independence. Parker indicated as much at Rhee’s hearing earlier this month. Asked by Ward 6 Councilmember (and former school-board member) Tommy Wells what he’d be willing to give up in contract concessions, Parker essentially indicated it was all about image.

“Let me answer it this way: We’re willing to do what’s right for teachers and children,” Parker said. “I think in any changes that are discussed there has to be a sense of fairness…I think that it is important that any changes that are requested can be directly related to student achievement.”

Come contract time, the union should be expecting to feel some pressure from Wells and certain council colleagues who will push for at least some of Rhee’s initiatives. Cheh, for one, recently sent a letter to Rhee outlining several suggested contract reforms, including changes to the grievance process, improving teacher evaluations, and implementing merit pay. “I’m not going to vote for something that doesn’t have some of these things in there,” Cheh says.

The union’s political clout is a shadow of what it was in Bullock’s day. A WTU endorsement—thanks in part to the union’s dwindling membership—has become less and less meaningful. The union can still mobilize its members to knock on doors and work phones for candidates, but even among the council’s strongest labor supporters, there’s not a lot of political bounce to standing behind a group of historically peevish schoolteachers. So when an agreement comes to the council, Parker can’t expect much of a backstop.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Still, Parker makes it clear he’s a reformer, but not one of the willy-nilly sort. “What we will not do is buy into a contract that has in it everybody’s personal ideas on how to reform education,” Parker says.

Rhee’s ideas might be troublesome enough. Under her formulation, principals—at least those principals who have proven themselves capable of improving student achievement—succeed when they’re given power over their schools. That more-autonomy model is the essence of charter schools, which have been immensely successful in D.C. from a political viewpoint, if not a student-achievement one. (Last September, the D.C.’s charter school board announced that only four of 34 charters had met federal student-performance benchmarks.)

And to work with someone whose avowed goal is to increase school autonomy is to tread on dangerous ground as far as WTU members are concerned. “I have a huge problem giving bad principals more power,” Aupperle says, “and it seems like the good ones don’t really need it.”

But the imperative these days is to stop the charter-school drain, and Parker says that’s why the union has to be focused on improving student performance. “The way to slow the growth of charter schools is to improve the public schools,” he says. “I think parents are voting with their feet, saying, ‘I’m willing to take a chance on something different.’ You can’t blame a parent for wanting a quality education for their child.”