explainer

What to expect when you're expecting layoffs: a rough guide

We’re told there are layoffs coming. But how many people will be laid off? Who will they be? And will you or your child’s teacher be among them?

“I wish I had more money and I wish I had more clarity,” was Chancellor Joel Klein’s answer to these questions a few weeks ago, speaking to principals by conference call.

The process of laying off teachers in New York City is so complex that few people have clear answers right now. But after studying the state law that sets teacher hiring and firing rules, talking to union and city officials, and looking back to the 1970s — the last time a economic crisis forced thousands of teacher layoffs — I have some clues. Here are answers to questions I’ve heard from parents and teachers (send more!).

Will there be layoffs?
Several scenarios exist that could reduce — but probably not eliminate — the number of layoffs.

In its leaderless, unpredictable state, Albany could rewrite the budget forecast as I type these words. Governor Paterson’s budget, and the budget passed in the Senate, cut about $500 million from New York City schools. When you add in the city’s increased operating costs, the losses come to $750 million. Klein has translated that to mean roughly 6,400 lost teaching jobs next year. Of that, 2,000 would be lost when teachers retire or move and the city plans to cut the other 4,400 through layoffs.

If the State Assembly decreases the education cut, the layoff numbers could go down. Another possibility is that the city’s teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, could cut a deal that would freeze teacher salaries in exchange for fewer layoffs. And yet another unpredictable element is S. 3206, the Keep Our Educators Working Act. Sponsored by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and backed by the Obama White House, the bill would devote $23 billion to helping states avoid teacher layoffs. If Congress approves the bill, New York City would get a $400 million lifeline.

How will the city decide which teachers lose their jobs?

Rules for layoffs were first written into New York’s education law in 1976. They say:

Whenever a teaching position is abolished under this chapter, the services of the person holding a position within the tenure area of the position which is to be abolished who has the least seniority in the city school district, including all full-time equivalent substitute service and all full-time equivalent service as a paraprofessional, shall be discontinued, provided that the services of a person who has acquired tenure within such tenure area shall not be discontinued if another person holding a position within such tenure area has not acquired tenure.

You mean you didn’t understand that?
The law means that the city has to lay off teachers based on how recently they were hired, with some leeway. Rather than taking all the most recent hires and firing them without considering what subject they teach, the law allows officials to make layoffs according to subject area.

Hypothetically, hundreds of elementary school classroom teachers could lose their jobs, but only a dozen science teachers could be laid off and almost no special education teachers would have to go. Right now, city education officials are puzzling over exactly how deeply to cut from each kind of position.

One way to decide which subjects to cut the most would be to let principals decide which positions they can live without. But the city has calculated that these decisions could take far too long to make, and so officials are instead making projections themselves.

According to a source, officials will calculate how many teachers will have to be cut from each subject area by studying schools’ past behavior and looking at hiring trends.

Does where I teach matter?
These cuts will happen on a citywide basis. This means that if the city estimates it has to cut 500 middle school social studies positions, the middle school social studies teachers who will lose their jobs are the 500 newest hires across all five boroughs. It doesn’t matter if your principal likes you and can afford to keep you on staff; you’re the rookie and you’ve got to go.

New schools that hired their entire staff in the last two years are likely to be hit the hardest by layoffs. And of all the boroughs, the Bronx would suffer the most as it employs many of the city’s most recent hires.

City officials have predicted that elementary school classroom teachers are likely to bear the brunt of the cuts. They’ve also said that teachers working in hard-to-staff subjects — like high school special education or chemistry — will probably see fewer layoffs.

But Klein keeps saying he wants to lay off teachers based on their ability. Could that happen?
Even the most diehard, anti-seniority-based layoffs city officials currently view this as a pipe dream. The law is the law, and there aren’t any signs this will change in the next few weeks.

Who’s going to be teaching my child next year?
In the worst case budget scenario, if your child’s teacher was hired in the last two years and teaches a subject that’s not in high demand, chances are good that she will lose her job. Another teacher may take her place if the school can afford to fill the vacancy, in which case the newly arrived teacher will be more senior and come from another school that either couldn’t afford him or that he left of his own volition.

If your school’s principal can’t stretch the budget to fill the vacancy, class sizes will probably rise. If it’s a high school, the principal may have to drop certain classes from the school’s offerings.

When will I know if I’m being laid off?
Department of Education officials hope to give principals their budgets for next year by June 1, so you could find out shortly afterward that your position has been eliminated at your school. But that doesn’t mean you’ve been laid off.

The teachers union contract says you have to be told about layoffs on or near June 15, but you shouldn’t view that as a hard deadline. If any of the moving parts change — if Albany alters the budget cut or if the federal government passes the education bailout bill — the news may come quite a bit later.

If I’m a teacher and I am laid off, do I get severance pay?
No. You will be paid through the summer and for the vacation days and sick days you didn’t use.

How long will my health insurance last?
Your city health insurance will expire 90 days from the day you are laid off. At that point, you can extend your health benefits with COBRA, which allows you to keep your insurance temporarily but requires you to pay the entire premium. It’s cheaper than getting individual health insurance.

In the words of one school official: “Go see your doctor; go to the dentist; go to the gynecologist, do it all.”

What happens if I’m laid off and then economic conditions improve?
The city has to keep what’s known as a “recall list” of all the teachers who’ve been laid off by order of seniority within their subject area. If jobs become available, the city can recall you. This process can be just as chaotic as layoffs are because, like layoffs, recalling is done on a citywide scale. This means that if you were laid off from a job in the Bronx you could be recalled and offered first rights to a job in Staten Island, even if your old school has an opening in your license area and wants to hire you back. First rights to that job could go to another teacher who’s ahead of you in the recall line.

In the mid-1970s, the last time layoffs of this scale were carried out, the city laid off 15,000 teachers and then tried to recall 10,000 of them. Only 3,000 ever returned to the system.

Send more questions to [email protected]

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”

Yes and No

In a first, New York officials reject 2 proposed charter schools, but sign off on 5 for New York City

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Charter-school advocates staged a rally outside the state capitol building 2015.

New York’s top education policymakers voted Monday to approve five new charter schools in New York City – but, for the first time, rejected two proposed charters.

The moves by the state Board of Regents sent a mixed message on charter schools. While the Regents have approved more this year than at any point since 2013, the rejections suggest they won’t rubber stamp applications – even those, like the two shot down Monday, that have earned the state education department’s blessing.

Four of the approved schools will be based in the Bronx, and one in Staten Island. (Technically, Monday’s vote is preliminary and the board must finalize its decision at Tuesday’s full-board meeting.)

A new charter high school on Staten Island plans to enroll a significant number of students with disabilities — an area of great need in a borough where a quarter of students have some disability. Students will have the opportunity to graduate with as many as 60 college credits through a partnership with St. John’s University.

The Bronx charters include a new elementary school that will serve high-functioning students on the autism spectrum, an all-boys middle school inspired by an Obama-era program aimed at uplifting young men of color, and a high school for students who have fallen behind academically.

The final Bronx school is KIPP Freedom, slated to open in 2018, which will mark the first time the national network has opened a new school in New York City in six years.

“The community has tremendous support for the charter,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa about KIPP, who suggested the school could even help reduce segregation if sited in the right location.

The two schools the board rejected would have been located in districts in Mount Vernon, in Westchester County, and Homer, in upstate New York.

Board members raised concerns about the applications, including that their curriculums were not very innovative. They also worried that the schools would drain resources from their surrounding districts, potentially forcing them to cut extracurricular programs from traditional schools.

Regent Judith Johnson, who represents the Mount Vernon district, expressed concern that the school only planned to serve students grades 6-8, while the district is moving towards a model that keeps children in the same school from kindergarten through eighth grade. She suggested waiting to see how the district’s efforts pan out.

“I would suggest this is premature,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to support this at this time.”

The vote comes as top state officials have been skeptical of charter schools and policies regulating them.

At past meetings, Regents have wondered aloud whether the schools are serving their fair share of high-needs students. And Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia have been on a warpath against a new policy that will allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers.

However, those concerns have not stopped the Regents from approving new charter schools. During a low point for approvals in 2015, when the state approved only four charters, few applications made it past the education department’s vetting process and to the board for final approval.

Since then, there has been a steady uptick in approvals. The board signed off on seven new schools last year, and is set to approve at least eight this year. (The board, which typically accepts applications in two or three rounds each year, approved three schools earlier this year.)

State education department officials on Monday also presented new ways to evaluate charter schools and decide whether they should remain open, based on proposals that the Board of Regents floated last month.

The additions to the state’s “Charter School Performance Framework” could include measures of student chronic absenteeism, the schools’ suspension rates, and the results of student and staff surveys. In previous meetings, Regents have also suggested surveying families who decide to leave charter schools.

Charter schools are already required to meet certain enrollment and retention targets, or to make “good faith efforts” to reach them. The state also considers the quality of a school’s curriculum and its outreach to families.

At Monday’s meeting, some Regents proposed adding yet another measure: whether charter schools are sharing innovative practices with the district schools.

“If the original intent [of charter schools] was to create opportunity for innovation,” said Regent Johnson, “we have to decide now, after those twenty plus years, did that happen?”