(Note: The following commentary by Ryan S. Olson, the Mackinac Center’s director of education policy, first appeared in The Washington Examiner on Jan. 16, 2007).

District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty, public school officials, civic leaders and parents face a daunting challenge: rescuing thousands of children trapped in schools widely thought to be among the highest-spending and worst in the nation. Meeting this challenge will require the effort of all interested parties, including unions.

School employee unions are often thought to be perpetually at odds with school boards and school reformers. Industrial-style bargaining has put unions in the difficult position of balancing union members’ wants with the needs of students. But balance they must. A multilateral reform effort can begin only when all sides affirm common ground, and must be continued by school leaders who take firm leadership for the sake of students in tail-spinning schools.

First the common ground. Like school and civic leaders, the Washington Teachers Union already attempts to foster educational quality in a number of ways. The WTU affirms that parental involvement in schools should be encouraged and facilitated by teachers. In 2006, the WTU paid tribute to teachers who received awards for excellence. WTU President George Parker and General Vice President Nathan Saunders have committed to ensuring that members are equipped to provide quality instruction to DCPS students, and the union has created professional development opportunities in an attempt to improve instruction.

The WTU’s commitment to "educational excellence" and its hope that every teacher "will meet, if not exceed" standards are qualities everyone involved in education should respect, admire and strive to emulate.

However, tragic abuses by union officials mar these standards. A number of former WTU employees and officers — including former union President Barbara Bullock and a former treasurer — were recently convicted and sentenced for embezzling $4.6 million from the union. Criminal activity involving compulsory union dues likely makes teachers question the commitment of union officials to their professional mission. The resulting distrust is not easily forgotten.

Teachers deserve better than this. They may demand more from their union leadership when they realize that compulsory dues taken from their paychecks fund union salaries that are considerably higher than their own above-average salaries. The gross salaries of top union officials and field representatives are as much as $37,000 higher than the average D.C. teacher’s salary of $63,000, according to the American Federation of Teachers and a disclosure recently filed by the WTU with the U.S. Department of Labor.

These ethical and earnings gaps demonstrate that District and community leaders must steer school reform by refocusing both their and the union’s attention on the individuals who are so critical to students’ success: teachers.

School leaders can strengthen their relationship with teachers by continuing and expanding on recently added contract provisions that reward with higher pay the teachers who are most effective at raising student achievement. By approving this reform contractually, school leaders and educators are allowing many hard-working teachers to receive their due acknowledgement.

Union officials, too, must accord teachers the respect they deserve as professionals. In this way, all parties facilitate the potential improvement of school quality.

Another critical step will be to capitalize on WTU President George Parker’s sober insight about the positive effect parental choice can have on the district. "Our parents are voting with their feet," Parker told The Washington Post last summer. "As kids continue leaving the system, we will lose teachers. Our very survival depends on having kids in D.C. schools so we’ll have teachers to represent."

Choosing among the 50-plus charter public schools or using vouchers, parents are taking the opportunity to avail their children of the schools they feel are best and safest. When they do this, they can essentially force conventional public schools to improve — or close.

As failing conventional schools become obsolete, union membership falls and unions increasingly lose their current role in education, which is solely to advocate for their members. If school and community leaders can respond positively to competition by seeking to meet the needs and demands of parents and children, the union could sustain its dues-paying membership.

Most importantly, parents would have good reason to send their kids to D.C. public schools, thereby helping to break a cycle of violence, poverty, hopelessness and despair.

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Ryan S. Olson is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.