Rhee's Reward: an Ethics Probe

D.C. campaign office will probe schools chief

There’s never a dull moment in the life of D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee.

Days after Rhee won merit pay provisions in a new contract with the Washington Teachers' Union, Rhee is facing an ethics probe over allegations by D.C. Federation of Civic Associations President Robert Brannum that Rhee broke the law by soliciting donations from private foundations that reserved the right to pull their funding if Rhee lost her job.

Cecily E. Collier-Montgomery, of the Office of Campaign Finance, told Brannum last Friday that there was “reasonable cause to believe that a violation has occurred” and that an investigation was warranted. Rhee raised $64.5 million from four private foundations to pay for the pay raises and merit bonuses included in the contract. Rhee spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway called Brannum’s charges that Rhee benefited personally from the funding agreement “nonsense.”

The Washington Post agrees. In a Tuesday editorial, the Post said that “in any other city, an official who manages to raise millions of dollars from credible organizations to improve public schools would get a commendation.” The Post is stunned that the campaign finance office is “actually investigating these half-baked allegations.”

Washington Examiner columnist Jonetta Rose Barras points out that the same office “determined Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray didn’t violate city laws when he used his official letterhead to solicit $20,000 from Comcast for activities at the Democratic National Convention.” Now, the same folks suggest Rhee “may have broken the law by raising money to increase the salaries of teachers who pledge to work harder to ensure children perform better.”

Despite the gripes of Rhee’s critics, the new contract is a win-win. It will increase teachers’ base pay by more than 21 percent, making salaries comparable to those in the D.C. suburbs. The pay hikes come as urban districts across the country are slashing pay to cope with budget gaps. In addition, a voluntary performance pay program, funded by that $64.5 million, could add up to $30,000 to a good teacher’s salary -- significantly more than in other cities with merit bonus programs.

Anything that can bring Rhee and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten together is a miracle -- and good news for teachers and students. Harry Jaffe wrote in his Examiner column that Weingarten “comes out a big winner, too” -- she “got raises for teachers at a time when they are losing jobs and wages nationwide,” while Rhee got her merit pay provision.

Rhee should survive the campaign finance office probe -- she’s stared down bigger foes -- but she still faces a threat to her job if Vincent Gray is elected mayor. Gray and Rhee have tussled in the past, and Gray has declined to say what he would do with Rhee.

If D.C. is dumb enough to ditch her, maybe she can go work in West Virginia. That state’s Charleston Daily Mail said in an editorial, “Washington, D.C., schools had to hit rock bottom” before the changes that “could pave the way for vast improvement in the schools” were won. The paper says West Virginia, where schools “are far from the bottom but still in need of improvement,” could learn from D.C.

It’s nice to know someone, somewhere, appreciates Rhee’s efforts.

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