Photo by William J. Gottlieb on Flickr

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?

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 year Nationwide, 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 DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.