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