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School’s Out Forever

Meet the 1,400 jobless New York teachers still getting paid.

IT WOULD SEEM like a pretty good gig: About 1,400 teachers in New York City are receiving full salaries and benefits even though they don't have permanent jobs. Two hundred and five of them have been without full-time work for three years. And they can continue receiving payments indefinitely even if they never secure new positions.

These educators are members of what is called the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR), a program in which unionized teachers are placed when they don't have jobs. They end up there after being displaced by school closings, program cuts, or voluntary transfers. Technically, they work as classroom substitutes, but, when they don’t have temporary assignments, they spend their days in school offices, cafeterias, and break rooms. And they are not required to seek full-time positions. “Teach one year, get [displaced], never apply for another job, but, as long as you work as a sub at full salary, you can get tenure at the end of that,” says Tim Daly, president of The New Teacher Project (TNTP), a New York-based education advocacy organization that monitors the reserve closely. And some ATR teachers, it seems, are content to stay right where they are. “I’m happy now,” one such teacher told TNTP researchers. “I don’t have to prep, I don’t have to grade tests, I don’t have my own class. I don’t really have to do anything.”

Over the last three years, the city has shelled out almost $200 million to compensate ATR teachers. This school year alone, in the midst of a recession, TNTP has projected the reserve will cost about $75 million. “I could use those [millions] to spend on early childhood education or to fund retention strategies to get our greatest teachers to stay,” an official at the city’s Department of Education (DOE) says.

Perhaps worst of all, the ATR is part of what was supposed to be an effort to free New York from the stranglehold its powerful teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), had for decades on teacher hiring. The reserve was created in 2005, when the devastating flaws of the old hiring system—which privileged seniority and lifelong job security over teacher quality—were finally challenged. Reformers came up with a new system, one that compelled displaced teachers to compete for jobs, often against new, younger teachers. But the union, spurred by traditionalists sticking to a deeply rooted belief that teachers should be guaranteed jobs, pushed back. The final agreement extended old-style job assurances by guaranteeing that, even if teachers didn’t have positions, they would always get paid.

Now, the recession is forcing New York to make massive budget cuts and refocusing attention on the city’s contract with the UFT, which is up for renegotiation in the fall. Something must be done about the ATR. But, while reformers want to amend the rules governing the reserve, saying the ill-conceived 2005 compromises are the problem, the union's traditionalists argue that, if the new way isn’t working, there’s only one direction to go—back.

Meanwhile, as states look for ways to qualify for federal stimulus money by committing to increasing teacher effectiveness, New York stands as one model of what not to do.

THE BATTLE OVER teacher hiring is why, on a Saturday afternoon in late March, a group of angry veteran teachers gathered in a chilly Manhattan classroom. They were there to protest the ATR. Sitting at desks scattered haphazardly through the room, the educators shouted complaints as one woman scribbled notes on sheets of paper taped to the blackboard. They decried New York’s mayor, his chancellor of education, and school principals, and they lamented this cabal’s primary goal: to replace experienced educators with younger recruits. “A lot of principals don’t want teachers who've been around for a while because when they say jump, we'll say, ‘Why?’” one woman cried, her brow furrowing with anger. “A twenty-two-year-old would say, ‘How high?’” Another woman holding an issue of the International Socialist Review silently shook her head.

Good veteran teachers, the group said, have been refused employment and are trapped in the ATR. “It’s like in the nineteenth century, when people were thrown off farms and had to live in crummy parts of cities,” grumbled one teacher, slumped at his desk in snakeskin cowboy boots and a shirt emblazoned with the UFT logo. (Five of the roughly two-dozen teachers in the room indicated that they had worked in the reserve as substitutes; one woman said she'd been doing it for three years.)

Their sense of entitlement dates back to 1961, when the newly formed UFT challenged the weak job security and low pay of the teaching profession. It negotiated a contract that guaranteed teachers jobs and gave hiring priority to the most senior educators. When teachers were displaced from jobs, they weren’t unemployed for long; the school district’s central office simply decided where to place them next, without input from teachers or principals. The most senior teachers got first dibs on vacancies. If openings weren't available, the district could bump out more junior staff. School systems around the country soon implemented versions of the program, widely called “forced placement,” which remains the norm in most districts today.

Soon enough, however, problems began to appear. Districts could place teachers into grades or subject areas that they weren’t trained to teach, and principals were required to accept new staff whether they liked it or not. (In 2007, TNTP reported that, through Portland, Oregon’s forced-placement process, “teachers are often slotted into grade levels with which they have limited or no experience.”) The system also allowed schools to play musical chairs with bad teachers: Skillful principals would reorganize programs to eliminate the positions of poorly performing teachers or encourage them to transfer elsewhere. “It’s just the dance of the lemons. Everyone knows about it,” says Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Fed up with forced placement's defects, in 2005, the UFT and New York City’s DOE crafted a new hiring plan called “mutual consent,” which would oblige displaced teachers to apply for jobs rather than accept assigned ones. Seniority would no longer trump all other qualifications. Instead, displaced teachers would have to find vacancies, send out resumes, and go on interviews, and they would face competition from applicants seeking to work in the school system for the first time. Principals would have final say over whom their schools hired.

Today, the vast majority of displaced teachers are rehired, and most approve of mutual consent. But the plan is deeply flawed because, in 2005, UFT refused to sacrifice its commitment to lifelong job security. It won the ATR, which means that, while displaced teachers have to compete for jobs, there is no consequence if they do not find them. They would simply get paid to wait in the ATR.

Today, teachers lingering for months, even years, in the reserve are more likely than the rest of the city’s educators to have “unsatisfactory” performance ratings, and many haven't applied for new jobs online, where the city maintains an employment database, or attended a job fair. “There’s no way we’d design this system if we started over from scratch,” says Tim Daly of TNTP.

Last fall, the UFT insisted that persistent ATR teachers weren’t being hired because it cost schools less to bring on new teachers who, as junior recruits, had lower salaries. TNTP found no hiring bias against ATR teachers, but the city agreed in September to pay the schools the difference between a reserve teacher’s salary and that of a new hire.

But critics aren’t satisfied. They say the city has mounted a smear campaign to garner support for eliminating the ATR, currently a bulwark preserving teachers’ lifelong job security. They argue that the DOE and school principals have allowed some veteran teachers (particularly union activists) to languish in the ATR and then used the press to marginalize them as a lazy, unqualified lot. [There is] a scarlet letter on them that hasn't been erased,” says UFT President Randi Weingarten, who is also head of the UFT's umbrella organization, the American Federation of Teachers.

Participants at the March meeting—sponsored by a self-described “dissenting caucus” of the UFT—are leading a campaign to get the city to repeal its mutual-consent policy, including the ATR. And they echoed Weingarten's grievance (though they also called her a “failed labor leader” for agreeing to scrap forced placement in the first place). Wearing black boots, army pants, and a skin-tight shirt that said “undefeated,” a reserve teacher standing by a snack table declared himself a “political prisoner.” He blamed principals with whom he doesn't get along for keeping him out of a job. “We can take these bastards!” he fumed. Another retired teacher shouted that the city’s attacks on seniority and job guarantees “will make the AIG crooks look like gold.”

The ideal, reform-minded outcome of New York’s fracas would be a better mutual-consent policy. Chicago, one of the only other big U.S. school systems to adopt mutual consent, allows teachers to remain in reserve for ten months, after which they are removed from the public payroll. Some experts also advocate allowing reserve teachers to go on unpaid leave after a specified amount of time; were they to find new jobs, they could return at their old salary levels. New York could also provide reserve teachers with enhanced job-search support. And the city would need to improve teacher evaluations and the rules for handling instructors who aren’t measuring up.

But implementing such a comprehensive program is, in the words of one New York DOE official, “a long shot,” because of growing opposition and outrage from the UFT and teachers clinging to the past. “I’ve been in those meetings, in those screaming matches,” says the DOE official, describing hiring policy “It would be a real uphill slog.”

Seyward Darby is the assistant managing editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the May 20, 2009 issue of the magazine.