Could Nyc Have Avoided Its Teacher-hiring Freeze?

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THE PLANK MAY 7, 2009

Could Nyc Have Avoided Its Teacher-hiring Freeze?

Today, in light of this year's massive budget crisis, New York City's chancellor
of education Joel Klein announced a
hiring freeze on new teachers
. This development dovetails with an
article
I wrote for this week's print issue about public school teachers in
the Big Apple who get paid even though they don't have full-time jobs. They're
part of what's known as the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR), a group of educators
who've been displaced from their old positions by school closings, other
structural decisions, or voluntary transfers. The reserve has caused much
dispute in the city in recent months because of its cost (tens of millions of
dollars annually).

What's more, the ATR highlights a rising national debate
over the best way to hire teachers. The traditional method, called "forced
placement, is still used by most school districts, and it involves assigning
displaced teachers to new positions based on their seniority, not their
classroom performance. A new way, called "mutual consent," compels
displaced teachers to compete against new applicants for jobs and allows
schools to decide whom they want to hire. New York has had mutual consent since 2005,
but, because of the local teachers' union's fixation on lifelong job security,
the city must continue to pay the full salaries and benefits of displaced
teachers who aren't re-hired. These teachers exist in the ATR and work as
classroom substitutes. The union insists that they deserve jobs, while many
hard-nosed reformers--including some of the city's top education officials--say
the ATR should have a time limit, after which reserve teachers would be removed
from the city' payroll.

As of today, however, the circumstances surrounding the
debate have shifted. The new hiring freeze effectively means that only ATR teachers,
along with teachers already employed by the school system who want to change
positions this year, may be hired to fill openings. The freeze doesn't upend
the core principles of mutual consent--namely, teachers still don't have their
old seniority rights, and they must apply for jobs and actually be selected for
them by school principals. But it does eliminate competition with new
applicants to the system, and it continues to ignore the fact that, among
teachers who remain in the ATR for months, the rate of job performance problems
is much higher than it is among the city's full teaching corps. (Exceptions
will be made for new schools, which may select up to 50 percent of their
teachers from outside the school system.)

In a letter to principals, Klein said the decision, which
will stem the need for citywide teacher lay-offs, was made because "we
cannot afford to support" the ATR. Randi Weingarten, president of the
local teachers' union, hailed the announcement as a win. One disgruntled
principal criticized the policy, telling the New York Daily News, "Don't tell me I have to hire from a
particular group." And it looks like, thanks to the freeze, the number of
Teach for America
members in the city will be slashed by half.

Still, according to an official in the city's Department of
Education (DOE) whom I spoke with this afternoon, the freeze will prevent a
backslide in teacher-hiring policy. If lay-offs were to happen, they would be
done by seniority--the most junior teachers would be kicked
out first
--and the leftover openings would be filled by moving
other educators involuntarily around the school system in a process similar to
forced placement. So, with the freeze, "we avoid layoffs and preserve
mutual consent," the DOE official explained. And the city plans to lift
the freeze as soon as possible. "I can assure you there is no appetite at
any level to in any way close the system from bringing in new teachers,"
the DOE official said. "The minute the economic circumstances permit it,
the system will go back to the way it was."

But, underlying all this talk of economic need, the fact
remains that, if the city weren't forced to pay ATR members indefinitely,
perhaps a substantial percentage of teachers could still be new hires (or,
maybe, the freeze wouldn't have happened at all). "The calculus would have
been different if there were different rules," the DOE official said,
adding that the contract between the teachers' union and the city, which dictates
how the ATR works, "is really incredibly, at least from the perspective of
most ordinary human beings, insane."

Insane, indeed. In good economic times or bad, on financial,
pedagogical, and political levels, the ATR is simply unsustainable.

--Seyward Darby

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