By: Katie Seymour
Out of all the controversial actions Michelle Rhee has taken during her career as Chancellor of DC Public Schools, her fall 2009 layoffs of several hundred teachers have inspired the strongest reactions in the public yet.
Warnings about upcoming layoffs began circulating publicly in September, when Chancellor Rhee announced that she would have to fire an unspecified number of teachers as part of an effort to address a $40 million deficit in the DCPS budget. On October 2, 2009, the Chancellor followed through by firing 229 classroom teachers, as well as over a hundred more school employees, prompting an immediate backlash from groups of students, teachers’ unions, and the DC City Council. Ever since, supporters and detractors have debated whether Chancellor Rhee’s actions were a legitimate move to save the public school budget while doing the least damage possible or a political ploy to replace older, higher-paid teachers who have resisted her reforms with newer, lower-paid recruits.
Chancellor Rhee explained her actions in an October 23 “Chancellor’s Note” published on the DCPS website. Every year, she says, the school system must “equalize” the difference between the preliminary budget, based on projected school enrollment, and the actual budget, which can only be determined after families have finished enrolling their children for the school year in the fall. Most years, the system responds by redistributing teachers based on individual schools’ needs, absorbing the cost of any extra teachers. Unfortunately, the gap between anticipated and actual enrollment was wider than usual for the 2009-2010 school year, and declining DC tax revenues, along with the recession, meant that the cost of retaining the extra teachers could not be dismissed. Ultimately, the Chancellor had to initiate a Reduction in Force that resulted in the loss of hundreds of DCPS positions in order to balance the budget.
Detractors, however, say that Chancellor Rhee manipulated the entire situation in order to staff DC schools with teachers who would cost less and support her more. Ms. Rhee hired an unusually high number of new teachers over the summer: over 900, when the usual number stays around 300. Opponents, including the Washington Teachers Union, cite these numbers when arguing against the firings, as Courtland Milloy did in his furious October 14 column for the Washington Post, claiming that “Rhee…used a relatively small budget shortfall as a ruse to get rid of older teachers and make way for the 900 new ones she had hired over the summer.” By doing so, the system could clear out expensive older teachers for relatively cheap new ones, while removing some of the entrenched union and teacher opposition to Ms. Rhee.
The Washington Teachers Union even filed an injunction against Ms. Rhee that would make the system rehire the fired teachers, accusing her of ageism. Although the DC Superior Court ruled against the Union, many teachers blame their loss on poor handling of the case by the WTU President George Parker, who had described Ms. Rhee’s actions as “union-busting.” Angry teachers have protested by forming another group, Fight for Fired District of Columbia Personnel, and Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, has spoken out against the layoffs.
The unpopularity of the Reduction in Force has not led Chancellor Rhee to alter her position. Rather, she has stood firm in her belief that her actions were for the good of the students, which she frequently cites as her highest goal. DC law allows her to make firing decisions on more than just experience, and she exercised that power in October by collaborating with principals to determine teacher performance and school needs, which also factored heavily into her decision. In an October interview with the Afro-American Red Star, Ms. Rhee summarily dismissed accusations of ageism or other bias in her decision, noting not only that it would be illegal but impractical for her to “target experienced teachers,” whom “research shows…are more effective than brand new teachers,” when she has frequently expressed a desire to hire only those who would produce the highest gains in student achievement. Moreover, Ms. Rhee’s desire to pay the best teachers significantly higher salaries in exchange for a less strict tenure policy (a deal unpopular with the WTU) makes accusations that she orchestrated the layoffs so that she could pay teachers less somewhat less likely. The official statistics of the firings show that the majority of those fired had worked less than ten years, and most of those had worked even fewer than five. Many of those with more experience had only recently begun working in the District, and only seven percent had more than twenty-five years of experience.
The DC City Council, which has clashed with Chancellor Rhee in the past, has also objected to the Reduction in Force. On October 29, the Council met with Ms. Rhee to investigate the nature of and reasoning behind the layoffs. Councilmembers, including Chairman Vincent Gray, claimed that Ms. Rhee ignored the Council’s directives on how to manage the reduction in budget. The Chancellor, on the other hand, claimed that Chairman Gray and the Council had ignored her warnings in May of what could come of the budget error. Mayor Adrian Fenty, unlike the City Council, supports Ms. Rhee’s actions wholeheartedly, and views what some councilmembers consider disrespect for the system as a willingness to take unpopular actions that ultimately produce results.
The Chancellor’s more recent comments have also colored the public’s perception of the firings. Talking to Fast Company magazine in February, Ms. Rhee alleged that she had “[gotten] rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school. Why wouldn't we take those things into consideration?” An uproar ensued. Teachers accused Ms. Rhee of slandering their profession, parents wondered why such teachers had not been fired immediately, and Chairman Gray demanded an inquiry into the issue. It was ultimately determined that fewer than ten of the several hundred fired had fallen into any of these categories. The Chancellor once again refused to back down. In a subsequent conversation with Jay Mathews, an education columnist for the Washington Post and self-declared supporter of Ms. Rhee, she refused to retract her statement for any reason, on the basis that “she thought that was something people should know.”
Although the fallout of the layoffs in regards to education will not be fully known until test scores have come out for the 2009-2010 school year, the Chancellor’s decisions have already affected her popularity. A January Washington Post poll shows that her ratings, as well as Mayor Fenty’s, have dropped significantly. Not quite half of the DC population still supports her, whereas at the beginning of 2008 almost two thirds did. Somewhat paradoxically, however, the public has also begun to view the public schools themselves in a significantly more positive light; the percentages of people who consider violence, the quality of materials, and the public schools themselves “a big problem” have all dropped by over 10%.
As with many of her previous actions as Chancellor, Michelle Rhee has inspired reactions at both ends of the spectrum with the fall 2009 firings. Some believe she took actions that, if unpleasant, were also necessary for an ailing school system. An October 28 editorial in the Washington Informer by Cynthia Newsome Bullock, a parent and former PTA member, credits Ms. Rhee “for putting the focus back on children,” saying “she has guts and I support her.” Others find these same “guts,” in the form of her willingness to alienate parents, the City Council, and teachers’ unions, more off-putting, which could account for her poor performance in recent polls. The same polls, however, show that DC has begun to recognize positive effects from her time in office. As Chancellor Rhee herself has put it, she is trying something new: "I'm not going to try to please people so I can stay here a little longer." Hopefully DC will be more pleased by her results than her methods.
Chancellor’s Corner: A section of the DC Government website dedicated to the Chancellor’s office. Includes a biography, schedules of Ms. Rhee’s public appearances, contact information, and the Chancellor’s Notes.
The Washington Post Education Section: Has a great deal of information on education in Maryland, Virginia, the District, as well as nationwide. Daily blog updates, roundups of nationwide stories on education, and special coverage of Michelle Rhee.
All articles referenced but not linked to were obtained through ProQuest Newspapers Database.