contract sport

UFT and city begin contract talks amid questions over pay, ATRs

The highly anticipated contract negotiations between the teachers union and the city are officially off and running.

In anticipation of the UFT contract’s October 31 expiration date, officials from both sides met yesterday to begin the negotiation process. The negotiations are colored by the city’s dismal financial projections and the upcoming mayoral election — the UFT has yet to endorse a candidate for mayor. They are also UFT president Michael Mulgrew‘s first significant challenge, and are likely to be a factor when he comes up for election in the spring.

Though both sides have signed confidentiality agreements allowing them to keep mum when the press pushes for details, neither has been entirely silent about changes they’d like to see made to the contract.

Chancellor Joel Klein has made no secret of his desire to see the Absent Teacher Reserve drained. The pools currently holds 1,695 teachers who previously worked in schools that have been closed. Though they remain on the city’s payroll, they do not have full-time teaching positions. The point of tension between Klein and the UFT is how to drain it.

On Wednesday, the first day of school, Klein reiterated his support for Chicago’s model, which allows teachers who’ve been laid off to spend one year searching for a new spot in the school system while receiving their regular salaries. At the end of that year, those who haven’t landed new positions are forced to move on.

In 2008, when a report by the New Teacher Project drew attention to the cost of the ATRs, then-UFT president Randi Weingarten responded by saying that the city should freeze hiring until all of the excessed teachers had found work.

With the hiring freeze in place and the reserve pool shrinking, union insiders and budget analysts say that the union might be willing to take up the issue. A recent report that the city has allocated 4 percent salary increases for teachers over each of the next two years has fueled speculation that the new contract will trade higher pay for layoffs within the ATR pool.

Delivering pay raises to teachers will not be the easiest move for the city to make right now.

“Personnel costs are the biggest single piece of the city budget and it’s been a growing piece,” said Independent Budget Office spokesman Doug Turetsky.

According to the IBO, in 2003, wages for city employees were 53 percent of the city’s budget. In the current fiscal year, as the city struggles to cut costs, wages are projected to be over 60 percent of the budget.

The UFT’s contract negotiations come after other unions have won pay raises from the city, possibly establishing a pattern for its own bargaining.

“The basic pattern was set when the economy wasn’t as grim,” said Charles Brecher, executive vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission. “The city is going to have to reconsider this and break the pattern,” he said.

Brecher said his organization will release a report in early October with a set of recommendations for what the city should seek in the contract negotiations.

“I think the concern is that some of the non-salary issues get taken up in a serious way,” he said, adding that merit pay and financial incentives to attract math and science teachers ranked high on the Commission’s list of hoped-for changes.

Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, detailed his own policy suggestions in an article in City Journal, in which he called for abolishing teacher bonuses and shorter contracts in select schools.

Another issue that often dominates union contract negotiations, pension plans, was taken up by the UFT and the city this summer. In a deal reached in June, they agreed to roll back pension benefits for newly hired employees and, in exchange, scrapped the two work days before Labor Day that were added to the work year in the last contract negotiation.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”