explainer

The real but misunderstood incentive to remove senior teachers

Do New York City principals have a financial incentive to get rid of veteran teachers?

That’s been a fiercely disputed accusation as the teachers union and city have traded shots over layoff threats in recent weeks. While the union embraces the claim as evidence that senior teachers need to be protected from layoffs, Chancellor Cathie Black denies that senior teachers are penalized at all.

Black recently told the Staten Island Advance that if a highly paid teacher is let go, a principal can go out and hire another veteran teacher without any repercussions. “It really doesn’t matter if it’s a more senior teacher making more money, or a younger teacher,” she told the newspaper. “It doesn’t change the equation. I think the UFT has really distorted that.”

The dispute is even more confusing because different Bloomberg administration officials appear to take different positions on the matter. According to a report in the New York Post, one of Black’s deputies has described the incentive structure as a problem and floated a plan to eliminate it, at least temporarily.

So again: Do New York City schools have a financial incentive to get rid of veteran teachers?

The truth is that the rules do favor less experienced and thereby cheaper teachers — but principals are so limited in firing decisions that it’s hard for them to maneuver more expensive, veteran teachers off of their budgets.

Currently, teachers are laid off citywide based on how many years they’ve been teaching and how desirable their license area is. Excessing — when principals have to cut teachers because they can’t afford them — works the same way except it happens by seniority within the school, not the entire city.

But a change introduced in 2007 to the way schools are funded inserted a new dynamic into the teacher job market.

Fair Student Funding

Since 2007, New York City has used “Fair Student Funding,” a formula that allocates money to schools based on how many students they have and what their students are like. Schools get different amounts of money if they have more special education students, how severe their students’ disabilities are, how many of them qualify for free or reduced lunch, and a host of other factors.

Though some teachers’ salaries are paid for centrally (such as speech teachers) and others are paid with Title I money, schools pay for most of their teachers with their Fair Student Funding dollars. Those funds are the least restrictive and the most abundant.

Before Fair Student Funding, schools paid for their teachers differently. Based on a teacher-to-student ratio, the city would centrally decide that a school needed to have X number of teachers. To fill those X number of positions, principals could hire low or high-salaried teachers — it didn’t matter which — because they were only charged for the citywide average salary.

If a school in Staten Island hired teachers in the $80,000 a year range and a school in the South Bronx hired beginner teachers making $40,000, both schools were charged the same amount of money per teacher — the average of $60,000. This system tended to hurt schools in poorer neighborhoods that couldn’t attract more experienced teachers. They had to share the costs of other schools’ experienced teachers, but they didn’t benefit from those teachers’ work.

When Fair Student Funding was put in place, city officials wanted to charge schools for the actual cost of their teachers, but they didn’t want to abruptly switch from one system to the next. Doing so would have the reverse effect of the formula at the time: it would hurt the schools where experienced teachers wanted to work by having teacher salaries swallow up their entire budgets. Instead, they moved to a “middle ground,” as a city document describes it.

That middle ground means that the city no longer gives schools money for teachers according to a formula. Fair Student Funding dollars form a pot of money for covering teacher salaries, and the effective price of each teacher is not the average salary of all teachers in the city — but the average salary of all teachers at the school.

Shifting the average from the city to the school changed some of the incentives working on principals. If before principals didn’t have to consider a teacher’s salary before hiring her, now they have reason to pay attention.

Today, School A and School B are no longer paying the same amount per teacher. Imagine they both have annual budgets of about $1 million and 10 teachers each. School A has more senior teachers, bumping its average teacher salary up to around $75,000. Meanwhile School B has newer teachers, keeping its average teacher salary down around $50,000. School A has to spend $750,000 a year on teacher salaries, whereas School B is spending $500,000, freeing up money for after-school programs and classroom supplies.

Consequences

The funding structure means that schools hit hardest by layoffs will also see their average teacher salaries jump the most — and their ability to hire new teachers from the pool of those available within the city will suffer.

If teacher ratings become a factor in layoffs, union leaders worry that principals might have a financial incentive to give veteran teachers low ratings, even if those teachers wouldn’t otherwise merit them. This would bring down the cost of all the teachers in their building for the following year, when budgets could become even tighter.

To some principals, the suggestion that their hiring is driven by dollars is an oversimplification.

“Your only consideration can’t just be money,” the principal of a new school told me.

“A good teacher, a teacher who has a history of experience and knowledge to share and can be a mentor — they’re worth every penny. The difference in salary is negligible when you’re looking at what they’re really bringing to the table,” she said.

But schools’ average teacher costs, and the incentive principals have to keep them low, are enough of an issue that some people in the Department of Education are trying to think of a solution. In a memo to Chancellor Black, Deputy Chancellor John White proposed freezing schools’ average teacher salaries for the next two years.

“That would mean schools that let go of highly paid staff would see no greater flexibility in spending than they see now,” he wrote.

Under White’s plan, the incentive to lay off expensive teachers would be put on hold for two years because during this time, regardless of who principals lay off, their average teacher salaries would remain the same. His plan is still under consideration, a city official said.

A Manhattan principal, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the problem with this idea is that few principals believe the DOE will maintain the same policy for two years. If principals lay off teachers with no eye to salary and then the city changes its mind, schools could find themselves with tighter budgets and high teacher costs. “There’s not much trust between us and the DOE,” she said.

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”