At the direction of Bill de Blasio’s administration, New York City public school principals have begun filling vacancies with teachers languishing on the city’s Absent Teacher Reserve. Everyone knows that this decision is lousy for city kids, especially those most in need of top instructors. In hindsight, though, it was also inevitable: the rules that govern public schools are designed to look out for the interests of adults, not children.

The ATR is an example of what happens when commonsense reforms run up against an inflexible system. Former mayor Michael Bloomberg gave principals power to hire the teachers they thought best, ending the practice of filling open slots by seniority. But the teachers’ contract complicated the process. Laid-off teachers could either look for a position elsewhere or join the ATR, where they’re essentially paid not to work. The ATR pool grew as the administration closed the city’s worst schools, which, unsurprisingly, employed many of the city’s worst teachers. The ATR numbered some 822 teachers at the end of 2016, costing the city about $150 million—though the roster was once much larger. Those remaining on the list are still jobless even after the de Blasio administration began encouraging principals to hire teachers from the pool.

The ATR differs from the old “rubber rooms,” or reassignment centers, where suspended teachers accused of misconduct awaited the adjudication of their cases—while being paid for doing nothing. ATR teachers aren’t dangerous; they just can’t (or won’t) persuade a principal to hire them. About 12 percent of ATR teachers have received either an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” performance rating, reserved for only the worst cases. (An absurd 97 percent of the city’s teachers earned “effective” or “highly effective” ratings last year.) The administration and the teachers’ union argue that permanently hiring teachers from the ATR—breaking with current policy, in which these teachers are used only as long-term substitutes—will bring stability to classrooms. The best way to stabilize classrooms, though, is for principals to hire effective teachers of their choice.

The original plan, announced in August, was to place about 400 ATR teachers into city classrooms, though inaccurate information on job openings and petitions from principals have limited the number to just 41 as of early December. But now that the administration has shown that it’s willing to reduce the ATR pool with forced teacher placements, we can expect more such placements as vacancies arise.

The administration claims that it will give ATR teachers one year to show their effectiveness and that it will follow the required legal process to remove poor performers. But the main reason that the ATR exists is because it’s nearly impossible to fire teachers. The city hasn’t suddenly decided that the ATR teachers are competent—it just needs to fill slots, especially at struggling schools, which tend to have higher turnover.

As expected, a disproportionate number of schools serving disadvantaged students have received ATR placements so far. Some struggling schools, however, won’t get any ATR teachers forced on them. The administration’s plan for its designated Renewal Schools—94 of the city’s worst schools, singled out in 2014 and given generous extra money and attention—was to demonstrate that, with enough resources, schools in the current system could improve. Renewal Schools tend to have high teaching turnover, making them logical candidates, it would seem, for ATR teachers, especially considering the extra resources and administrative support that the Renewal Schools enjoy. Here is where the administration’s political calculus becomes clear: it’s willing to unleash ATR teachers on schools serving disadvantaged students, as long as they’re not schools in which the administration has a vested political interest. The decision to exempt Renewal Schools from taking on ATR teachers is a vote of no confidence in these teachers’ abilities.

The stubbornness of the teachers’ union is ultimately to blame for this situation. Both the de Blasio and Bloomberg administrations bet that the union would eventually strike a deal imposing limits on how long teachers could remain on the ATR. But the United Federation for Teachers opposes any deadline, even on teachers who haven’t found a principal willing to hire them after five years, as is the case for one-quarter of ATR teachers. It’s more important to the union that current teachers remain employed than that these teachers prove effective at their jobs. The ATR debacle is just the latest illustration of how hard it is to buck the legacy rules that govern urban public school systems.

No wonder, then, that so many parents in struggling school districts want 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 teachers not to teach. Serving primarily low-income and minority students, charters have been significantly more successful with these students than traditional public schools. A study from the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes found that New York City charter students performed substantially better than their peers at traditional public schools. The researchers found similar results for charter school systems in other cities.

As the success of charters in New York City and elsewhere has shown, the best hope for change in urban public schools isn’t to reform the current system, but to circumvent it.

Photo: Tero Vesalainen/iStock


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