There’s One Thing Worse Than Paying Bad Teachers Not to Work
What should a city do with poor teachers who, thanks to union rules, cannot be fired? For years New York has let them linger on its Absent Teacher Reserve, where they are paid without having a permanent spot in any school. But now the city is taking the opposite approach: putting them back into classrooms.
The ATR is an example of what happens when reform runs up against inflexible labor rules. In 2005 Mayor Michael Bloomberg ended the practice of filling teaching slots in New York’s public schools by seniority. Instead, he gave principals increased power to hire the teachers they thought best. The complication was the union contract. Laid-off teachers could either look for a position elsewhere or join the ATR, where they receive full salary and benefits as they move across schools doing short-term work, often as substitutes.
The ATR differs from the notorious “rubber rooms,” or reassignment centers, where suspended teachers accused of misconduct once awaited adjudication of their cases. Teachers aren’t placed on the ATR because they are facing dismissal. They just can’t (or won’t) persuade a principal to hire them. Some have received ineffective teaching ratings. Others have records of disciplinary problems like absenteeism or sleeping on the job.
As the Bloomberg administration closed the city’s worst schools, the ATR pool grew. On the first day of school in 2013 it included 1,957 teachers. Since Bill de Blasio became mayor in 2014, his administration has offered ATR teachers buyouts and given principals an incentive to hire them by having the city cover part of their salaries for the first two to three years. By the end of the 2016-17 school year there were 822 teachers left in the pool; that year paying ATR teachers cost the city about $150 million.
Then last summer the city announced it would simply place some 400 ATR teachers into classrooms without giving principals any say. As of early December, only 41 placements had been made. Still, the administration has shown its willingness to reduce the ATR with forced teacher placements, meaning more will doubtless come as vacancies arise.
Neither the union-friendly de Blasio administration nor the antagonistic Bloomberg administration has been able to strike a deal imposing limits on how long teachers can remain on the ATR. The United Federation of Teachers opposes any deadline, even on teachers who haven’t found a principal willing to hire them after five years. Today that’s the case for one-quarter of ATR teachers.
Rather than admitting defeat, the de Blasio administration has joined with the union to spin the placements as a better way to allocate resources. The argument is that at hard-to-staff schools with high turnover, permanently hiring a teacher from the ATR is better than relying on substitutes. “What we’re trying to do is give a more stable educational environment to the students,” the union’s president, Michael Mulgrew, said last year.
The most difficult-to-staff schools are often those that serve low-income and heavily minority populations. As expected, a disproportionate number of the ATR placements have been at such schools. The city says it is holding the teachers accountable. ATR teachers have one year to show their effectiveness, after which the city says it will remove the low performers and in some cases follow the required process to fire them. But the fact that it’s nearly impossible to do so is the reason the ATR exists in the first place.
And here is where the political calculus becomes clear: Some struggling schools won’t get any ATR teachers forced on them. In 2014 the city designated 94 of the worst schools as Renewal Schools, singling them out for extra money and attention. The point was to demonstrate that with enough resources, the current system could improve. Now these Renewal Schools have been made exempt from taking ATR teachers. In other words, the de Blasio administration is perfectly willing to put poor teachers in disadvantaged schools, just not the ones in which the mayor has a political interest.
The ATR debacle is the latest illustration of how hard it is to create lasting change in urban public school systems. No wonder, then, that so many parents in struggling districts are trying to get their children admitted to charter schools. Operating outside collective-bargaining agreements, charters don’t have to hire teachers based on seniority or pay bad ones not to teach.
A study last year from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that New York City’s charter students made gains equivalent to an additional 23 days of learning in reading and 63 days in math, compared with their peers in traditional public schools. The researchers have found similar results for charters in other cities. As New York puts ATR teachers back to work, it’s clearer than ever that the best hope for change in urban public schools isn’t to reform the current system, but to circumvent it.
Mr. Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an associate professor at the Boston University School of Education. This essay was adapted from the winter issue of City Journal.
Appeared in the February 10, 2018, print edition.