“In every respect, this agreement is a win for everyone,” said United Federation of Teachers (UFT) president Randi Weingarten in an unexpected Monday announcement about the deal the teachers’ union had just reached with the Bloomberg administration on pension contributions for new teachers. Mayor Michael Bloomberg echoed the win/win rhetoric and welcomed the anticipated reduction in pension costs for the city’s treasury after this year. Amid all this celebration, however, nobody pointed out that the pension deal will probably wind up harming Gotham’s students, starting with their very first day at school.
There’s no doubt that the agreement is a big political victory for the mayor in an election year. It’s probably part of a wide-ranging deal that began last month, when Weingarten suddenly reversed her support for legislative changes that would have significantly reduced the mayor’s absolute control of the schools. Now Bloomberg also has the union’s support for some modest pension savings over the next 20 years that will be paid by future teachers, including those transferring into the public system from private and Catholic schools. In return, Weingarten—who is also the president of the UFT’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers—gets a complete pass for her current members, who will make no sacrifices to help ease the city’s economic and fiscal crisis. Even more remarkably, the teachers are getting a shorter work year out of the new deal: they no longer have to report to their schools two days before the Labor Day weekend. That means the teachers’ summer vacation this year will be a total of ten and a half weeks.
This is not an insignificant concession. The mayor had won union agreement to those two working days before the Labor Day weekend in contract negotiations in 2005. Many school principals regard the two days as essential for effective instructional planning and getting the school year off to a smooth start. The two days are even more vital for giving rookie teachers—about 7,000 are hired in a normal year—some minimum preparation and mentoring before they enter a classroom for the first time. (Private schools with smaller class sizes wouldn’t think of allowing new teachers to enter the classroom without at least a week of intensive training.)
Because the Department of Education (DOE) has already published a 2009–10 school calendar calling for “official school sessions for all students” starting the day after Labor Day, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein now seems stuck between a rock and a hard place. Either the DOE changes the calendar and takes away a day or two of instruction for students, or it sticks to the calendar and simultaneously brings in all teachers and all students on Tuesday, September 8. That’s a prospect that several principals told me they found frightening. In the larger high schools, brand-new teachers usually need a full day just to find their way around the halls. In elementary schools on September 8, new teachers who have never run a classroom will be standing before 25 young children within 20 minutes of reporting to work for the first time. Even in the “bad old days”—that is, before mayoral control—teachers had to come in for at least one day of preparation and planning before students showed up for classes in grades K–8, and two or three days before classes started in the high schools.
When I asked the DOE’s press office on Tuesday morning whether the official school calendar for students still held, it told me that I would get an answer shortly. But I still haven’t got any response, which leads me to believe that the DOE is now scrambling to figure out how to minimize the damage created by the new agreement. It looks more and more as though the deal was negotiated with little thought for the damaging impact it would have on the schools and the kids.