OUR OPINION: Minnesota can learn from D.C. school reform
Pessimists on the left see the future as one big Deepwater Horizon, a ruined industrial landscape despoiled by oil. Pessimists on the right see the future as Greece, an era in which so many people work for the government that there's no private s...
Pessimists on the left see the future as one big Deepwater Horizon, a ruined industrial landscape despoiled by oil. Pessimists on the right see the future as Greece, an era in which so many people work for the government that there's no private sector left to pay the bills.
One of those sides might be right. But through it all, the reactor-like force that is America's greatest strength continues to generate power, exactly as it has for more than 200 years.
That force is creativity. You see it in the arts, as one viewing of "Avatar" shows. You can see it in technology every time you use your iPod.
And you can see it in public policy. America has lots of problems, but as always happens in these eras, it also has lots of fresh leaders with creative ideas and the political savvy to see them through.
One of them is Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington public schools.
Minnesota's candidates for governor should study her example.
For years, the District of Columbia's schools ranked among America's worst. Then in a 2007 reform, the city's mayor won the power to appoint the chancellor and control the school district's budget. Mayor Adrian Fenty appointed Rhee.
Rhee is a product of the Teach for America system, the program that lets liberal arts college graduates teach without first getting a teaching degree. That program is typical of the reforms she promotes, which give a lot more weight to classroom results and a lot less to credentials and seniority.
Rhee has drawn lots of national attention since 2007, but two things happened in recent weeks that deserve special note. First, the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed solid progress in the district. "From 2007 to 2009, D.C. Public Schools' fourth-grade reading scores increased by the fastest rate of any of the major-city school districts giving the exam," the Washington Post reported.
Second and more important, Rhee negotiated a new contract with the teachers union that could become a national model.
Basically, the contract weakens teachers' tenure protection, putting in place a system in which low-performing teachers can be fired or laid off. But in return, teachers will get much better pay -- especially highly skilled teachers, whose pay and bonuses now could reach $140,000 a year.
In years past, teachers unions across the country bitterly fought tenure reforms. But times have changed, and moreover, Rhee found the right incentive to let the reform proceed. The Washington Teachers Union approved the new pact by a vote of 1,412 to 425.
In effect, Rhee used the approach that Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty could have used to resolve Minnesota's budget deficit and reform state government. The approach simply calls for both sides to give up something fundamental in return for fundamental reform.
As mentioned before in this space, the agreement Pawlenty could have struck was this: "I will agree to raise taxes," the governor could have said, "but only in return for civil service reforms, reforms that make working for the government job more like working in the private sector."
Instead, Pawlenty held to his "no new taxes" pledge. And because he wouldn't budge, his political opponents wouldn't budge, either. So, Minnesota's structural deficit keeps on getting worse.
Sadly, the major-party candidates for governor seem just as wedded to their ideologies. Democrat Mark Dayton, among others, explicitly calls for raising taxes but breathes not one word about pension, labor or other reforms. As for the Republican side, candidate Tom Emmer hasn't moved an inch off his Pawlenty-like no-new-taxes stance.
These positions win support from partisans. But they alienate vast numbers of Minnesotans in the middle -- voters who clearly are hungry for a less ideological way.
Rhee is showing how that's done. Her example is drawing national attention, and it's waiting for any candidate in Minnesota and elsewhere who'd like to break out of the pack.