Sending Teachers Back to Class

This piece was first published in the New York Post.

Mayor de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have a $144 million problem. It’s called the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) pool, and it serves as a permanent way station for teachers whose jobs have been eliminated due to school closures or other reasons.

Under the city’s contract with the United Federation of Teachers, teachers in the ATR pool can remain there indefinitely, earning their full salary and benefits. Today, there are more than 1,000 of them, many of whom have been unable or unwilling to secure a new full-time teaching position for more than a year. They cost New Yorkers $144 million a year.

The ATR pool and its steep price tag isn’t new—my organization first wrote about it more than six years ago—and virtually everyone agrees that the city should stop paying teachers not to teach. The trickier question is how exactly to close the ATR pool.

One terrible idea, which happens to be favored by the UFT, is to simply force all the ATR teachers back into schools. (This can be done either by having Human Resources slot ATR teachers into vacancies or by ordering principals to hire from the ATR pool until it is dissipated).

The city has long resisted this plan, because schools shouldn’t be forced to accept teachers they don’t want to hire. But the de Blasio team is now reportedly considering it.

The mayor needs to think long and hard before making a choice that would take the city’s schools backward 10 years, to an era when this kind of forced hiring was rampant.

In those days, any teachers whose jobs were eliminated could be forced into another school, regardless of whether they wanted to work there or whether the principal wanted to hire them. It created a dysfunctional culture where principals often hid open positions and strategically cut existing ones in order to get rid of low-performing teachers—who bounced around the system for their entire careers.

The city and the teachers union agreed to leave forced hiring behind in a landmark 2005 contract. (Full disclosure: I led the DOE team that negotiated the contract.) That set up a new process: Teachers can apply for open positions as they see fit, and principals have the final say in selecting the best candidates for their schools. This approach to hiring is called “mutual consent,” but it’s really just common sense.

That the mayor would consider returning to the bad old days of forced hiring is troubling enough. But force-placing the pool means force-placing hundreds of teachers with records of poor performance:

  • About 25 percent have been brought up on disciplinary charges.
  • Another third have received unsatisfactory evaluation ratings.
  •  More than half haven’t held a regular classroom position for two or more years.
  • And about three in five don’t seem to want a regular teaching job — they didn’t submit a single application in the city’s online hiring system last year.

Everyone loses if ATR teachers are forced into schools. Teachers won’t have a say in where they work. Principals will be denied the ability to hire their own staff. Most importantly, students—particularly in lower-income neighborhoods where teaching positions are hardest to fill—will be hit by an influx of ineffective teachers.

There’s a better way to solve the ATR problem. The city and the teachers union should agree to reasonable time limits for teachers to remain in the ATR at full pay—six or 12 months, perhaps—after which teachers who can’t land one of the 5,000 positions that open up across the city every year would be released. (These teachers would be allowed to return to their previous salary and seniority level if they secure a position later.)

This is not a pie-in-the-sky idea—unions and districts have agreed to this basic approach in Chicago and Washington, DC.

I know that the mayor, as a public school parent, cares deeply about helping every school and every student succeed. How he chooses to solve the ATR problem will tell New Yorkers a lot about whether he can actually make that happen.

It’s clear that the United Federation of Teachers would rather force the entire ATR pool into schools, because its mission is to protect the jobs of its members. It’s just as clear that a return to forced hiring is bad for students, families, teachers and principals.

So, will the mayor be pushed into resurrecting a failed policy? Or will he challenge the UFT to find a solution that won’t hurt schools? We’re about to find out.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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