Greater Greater Education

New DC teachers union president promises more pushback

The Washington Teachers Union has just ousted its incumbent and replaced him with a new president who promises a more militant stance. What does this mean for the future of education in DC?


Photo by William J. Gottlieb on Flickr

In a run-off election on July 1, the WTU membership elected veteran teacher Elizabeth Davis to replace Nathan Saunders as president. As Emma Brown reported in the Washington Post, the election of Davis, who got 55% of the vote, could throw ongoing contract negotiations into disarray.

One issue that's likely to be in contention is Henderson's proposal for a longer school day and school year. While the specifics of the proposal haven't been made public, Saunders has said the draft contract includes salary increases and provisions that would allow for such a change. But now he says that any further negotiations will be up to Davis.

Davis has opted for caution, declining comment on the school year/school day provisions until she sees the language in the contract. More generally, though, she promises that the union's relationship with Henderson "will change in some respects." And she's vowed to mount greater resistance to school closures and school "reconstitutions," where DCPS requires all teachers at a failing school to reapply for their jobs.

It's too soon to say what the change in union leadership will mean for Henderson's reform efforts. Nathan Saunders himself came into office in 2010 as a militant radical under Henderson's predecessor Michelle Rhee, but ended up being conciliatory under Henderson. Davis told the Post that the union plans to be more vocal but does not intend to be a "roadblock to school reform."

Perhaps more of a wild card is Davis's running mate, newly elected vice-president Candi Peterson. Peterson, a social worker, writes a blog that serves up fiery anti-Henderson rhetoric. (The blog's background graphic shows actual flames.) A story about Peterson and the election in a pro-union publication linked the WTU "reform slate" to a "grassroots backlash" against the kind of changes Henderson has been pushing for, and it characterized Davis and Peterson as being inspired by the aggressive union leadership in Chicago that took teachers out on strike there last September.

Peterson hasn't exactly come out against Henderson's longer school day/school year proposal on her blog. But in criticizing the secretiveness surrounding the plan before the union election, she observed that it was "not the kind of news teachers and school staff want to hear."

Most high-performing charter schools have some form of an extended school day or school yearNationwide, the majority of charter schools don't have extended hours, but in DC, the picture is different. Virtually all high-performing charters serving a high-poverty population do have some form of an extended school day or school year, and it's hard to see how DCPS schools will be able to match their results without following suit. DC Councilmember Mary Cheh, who in 2010 introduced a bill that would have added thirty minutes to the school day, said she was heartened by Henderson's proposal. And Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers (the WTU's parent union), has cautiously supported the idea of increased school hours.

If Davis and Peterson want to prove to the public that teachers unions care not just about their own members' interests but also those of DCPS students, they'll find some way to agree to Henderson's plan, at least on a trial basis.

Davis and Peterson have also criticized what they characterize as Saunders' autocratic leadership style and say they want more of a voice for the rank-and-file. But, as is often the case in teachers unions, it's not clear how engaged the rank-and-file are. The WTU has around 4,000 members, and only about 800 of them bothered to vote in the run-off election. That's about twice as many as turned out for the prior election on June 7, but it's still far from an impressive showing.

One thing that we can all hope for is an end to internecine squabbling in the WTU. Peterson started out as Saunders' vice-president in 2010, but they had a disagreement the following year and Saunders booted her out. Now Davis and Peterson say that under the WTU bylaws they should take over the reins of the union immediately upon election, but Saunders says he's entitled to stay in power until the end of July. When Peterson and some others showed up at the WTU office on July 2, Saunders refused to let them in.

Given the state of education in DC, surely there are important things for teachers union leaders to be focusing on.

Natalie Wexler is a board member at DC Scholars Public Charter School and a volunteer tutor in a DC Public School. She also serves on the board of The Writing Revolution, an organization that brings the teaching of analytical writing to underserved schools. She has been a lawyer, a historian, and a journalist, and is the author of three novels. 

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Could you clarify what you mean by "Most high-performing charter schools have some form of an extended school day or school year."?

I know the KIPP schools have extended school days and school years, and their students perform better than their peers in pretty much direct proportion to the extra time. That is, with the equivalent of 1 year of additional instructional time, the KIPP kids are about 1 year ahead of their conventional counterparts, which is impressive, but still isn't quite adequate to close the much larger achievement gap between at-risk and middle-class students.

But the charters that are most sought-after (by middle-class parents at least) and which have the highest scores--Stokes, Two Rivers, Yu Ying, LAMB, and so forth--appear to operate on a 180-day school year with a 32.5-hour school week, the same as DCPS elementary schools.

by thm on Jul 8, 2013 12:49 pm • linkreport

Interesting report.

If the conflict between WTU and DCPS escalates, that leave less energy for improving the teaching of the kids. Result: parents enroll their kids in the charters.

Union aggressiveness toward DCPS weakens DCPS, making public schools more and more irrelevant. More than one person has remarked that charter schools are union-busters.

by goldfish on Jul 8, 2013 1:00 pm • linkreport

goldfish is right on this one. We'll be left without an actual public school system before this fight is over.

by Adam L on Jul 8, 2013 1:36 pm • linkreport

@thm: Good catch. I wasn't thinking about schools like the ones you mention, which serve a relatively diverse student body, but about the ones whose student bodies are largely high-poverty. And I confess I don't have statistics on how many of those schools have longer school days or years, but it's clear at least anecdotally that many of them have at least one or the other. DC Scholars, which serves a high-poverty population, has a longer school day but not a longer school year.

And while it's true that schools like KIPP and DC Scholars haven't yet succeeded in closing the achievement gap, it's also true that they're doing a better job of it than DCPS schools are.

by Natalie on Jul 8, 2013 1:44 pm • linkreport

Actually, data from 2008-09 show that 90% of charter schools DON'T have extended hours: http://dashboard.publiccharters.org/dashboard/schools/page/elt/year/2013. So I stand corrected, unless the number has increased drastically in the last few years. But there is, of course, great variety in charter schools. The best I can say is that many high-performing charter schools in DC that serve a high-poverty population do have extended hours. See, e.g., this blog post by Ken Archer that appeared on GGW in 2011, which shows that all the top-performing charter middle schools have a longer school day than DCPS: http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/13058/leadership-needed-to-extend-dc-school-day/

by Natalie on Jul 8, 2013 8:38 pm • linkreport

I heard a speech by Henderson where she talked through her entire career including as an understudy to Rhee and as chancellor. She's a very impressive person who sounds like she both wants what is best for kids and for teachers. That's going to be less pro-teacher than teachers are probably accustomed to... teachers may even dislike it... but it's still basically pro-teacher.

by nick on Jul 8, 2013 9:02 pm • linkreport

goldfish is right on this one. We'll be left without an actual public school system before this fight is over.

The alternative is a Wisconsin-style gutting of public-sector unions. Which is not completely out of the question.

by oboe on Jul 9, 2013 2:25 pm • linkreport

And she's vowed to mount greater resistance to school closures and school "reconstitutions," where DCPS requires all teachers at a failing school to reapply for their jobs.

I'm curious: how will the WTU "mount greater resistance to school closures"? Is there something in their contract that gives them leverage? Or will it just be a matter of picketing, or something?

by oboe on Jul 9, 2013 2:37 pm • linkreport

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