Is DC in reverse? The latest fallout

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Washington Teachers' Union president George Parker recently joined his pals Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty in the unemployment line. (Rhee didn't stay there long, though, launching her new StudentsFirst initiative last week.) It seems Parker's reform-mindedness and role in ushering in this year's forward-thinking teachers' contract didn't win him much popularity among his rank-and-file union members. They ousted him in favor of his most vocal critic--and the union's general vice president--Nathan Saunders.

The union's leader since 2005, Parker said that some of his members were angry about the changes the union agreed to during Rhee's term, such as giving principals more say in hiring teachers and affording teachers fewer job protections, particularly those based on seniority. Even though DC's new teacher evaluation system, IMPACT, is not party to contract negotiations, the union blamed him for that too. In fact, Saunders himself admitted that the race was clearly about job security and IMPACT.

Whether a better voter turnout (only 25 percent of union members even bothered to show up) would have changed the results is unclear. The election had dragged on for months, with lots of internal fighting and a lawsuit. Ultimately, the big guns from the national office of the American Federation of Teachers had to step in and get the local on track.

The situation underscores the tightrope progressive union leaders must walk to accomplish any reforms. Having to be careful not to alienate their base of support while pushing the envelope, union leaders, perhaps even more so than superintendents and mayors, may find it difficult to go out on a limb and stay in office.