How New York City May Be Shortchanging Its Poorest Students

COMMENTARY Education

How New York City May Be Shortchanging Its Poorest Students

Aug 21st, 2017 4 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Lindsey M. Burke

Director, Center for Education Policy and Will Skillman Fellow in Education

Lindsey Burke researches and writes on federal and state education issues.
Failing teachers in New York City, backed by powerful union special interests, are being allowed to keep their jobs in the classroom. iStock

Last year, 822 public school employees sat idle in “rubber rooms” in New York City.

Well, perhaps not entirely idle. Some played Scrabble, others slept. On average, a quarter of these taxpayer-funded employees have sat in these rubber rooms—places where teachers who have been dismissed from the system but can’t be fired spend their days—for five years.

The average salary of these teachers—who are not working—is $94,000 per year. Their counterparts in the district who are working every day earn $10,000 less each year.

Yet, as the poorest and most disadvantaged children in New York head back to school in the coming weeks, they’ll find these union-protected employees have been shuffled into their classrooms, likely moved into unfilled teaching slots in the worst-performing schools in the city.

New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, a vocal opponent of school choice, has not only backed policies that prevent low-income children from leaving these schools. His administration will now transfer teachers who had previously been fired from the district system for disciplinary reasons or poor performance—a rare occurrence, indeed—into classrooms across the city, likely to schools that are already underperforming and have trouble filling teaching slots.

“You’re going to force the worst teachers in the system into the schools that are struggling the most,” one Manhattan principal told The New York Times.

These teachers cost New York City taxpayers $150 million last year alone, the result of a deal struck initially by the Bloomberg administration with the teachers’ union to provide more autonomy to principals over personnel decisions, without unionized teachers facing the threat of actual firing.

If, come October, schools still have unfilled teacher slots, some 400 teachers currently filling rubber rooms—or what the city refers to as “Absent Teacher Reserves”—will be transferred in, with no input from school principals.

Instead of moving these teachers out of the system entirely—as would happen in the private sector, private schools, and many charter schools—these teachers are retained due to policies pushed by union special interest groups, and will now make their way back into the classroom.

It is a crystal-clear instance of union policy protecting adults in the government school system instead of working to ensure children have access to a quality education—and in this case, quality teachers.

While union heads argue that the new policy of moving these idle teachers back into hard-to-staff schools will provide “stability” for students, principals, understandably, see things differently.

According to the New York Times:

“I have had over the past five years a lot of [absent teacher reserves] come in,” said the principal, who spoke anonymously for fear of repercussions for the school. “And I have to say, less than 10 percent of them—way less, maybe 5 percent of them—would I hire.”

This in a city where just 28 percent of fourth graders are proficient in reading, a figure which falls to fewer than two in 10 black and Hispanic students.

It is a further injustice to the children already trapped in the worst performing schools in New York City to double-down on the lackluster education they currently receive by transferring these individuals—previously relieved for poor teaching performance, among other things—into their classrooms.

Stanford scholar Eric Hanushek has identified how important teachers are to children’s future success, particularly for poor children. As Hanushek has found, children in classrooms with teachers near the high end of the quality distribution experience an entire additional year of learning.

He also found that having a good teacher—as opposed to an average teacher—for three to four consecutive years would close the mathematics achievement gap between poor and non-poor children.

Access to a quality teacher can also have a dramatic impact on a child’s future earnings potential. According to Hanushek, relative to an average teacher, a teacher in the 75th percentile would increase each child’s average income by $14,300 over the course of her lifetime, or $358,000 in a classroom of 25 children.

Access to quality teachers is one important feature parents look for in a given school.

It’s unbelievable then, that in an American city today, policymakers would assign children to government-run schools based on their parents’ zip code, consigning the poorest among them to the worst schools. And then to top it all off, would send some of the worst-performing teachers into their classrooms.

Yet that is exactly what will happen this fall in New York.

If only parents could exercise school choice.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal