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.

state of the union

New York City teachers union braces for Supreme Court ruling that could drain money and members

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (standing) met with teachers during a school visit in 2014.

A few dozen labor leaders gathered recently at the the headquarters of New York City’s 187,000-member teachers union to hear a cautionary tale.

In a glass-walled conference room overlooking downtown Manhattan, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew settled into a chair facing a colleague from Wisconsin. He asked the state teachers union president, Kim Kohlhaas, how her members have fared after an aggressive rollback of labor’s bargaining power there.

She described rampant teacher turnover, fewer job protections, and ballooning insurance and pension costs. In short, a union’s worst nightmare.

For the UFT, Wisconsin is a harbinger of what could result from a Supreme Court case known as Janus, which revolves around the ability of public unions to collect mandatory fees. Oral arguments begin on Feb. 26, and the decision, which is expected in a matter of months, could dramatically alter the landscape for unions across the country.

The impact will be felt especially by the UFT, the largest union local in the country. If the court rules that teachers are not required to pay for its services, the union is likely to shed members and money — a war chest that has allowed the UFT to be a major player in New York politics and to secure robust benefits for its members.

“This is dangerous stuff we’re getting into now,” Mulgrew told Chalkbeat. “They’re trying to take away people’s ability to come together, to stand up and have a voice.”

While the case deals with different issues than Wisconsin’s anti-union policies did, New York City labor leaders say the limits on their membership and funding would weaken their ability to fight against further restrictions on their organizing and bargaining power.

In anticipation of the ruling, union leaders have reportedly already considered downsizing their operations. And they have undertaken a preemptive information and recruitment campaign to hold onto members — who, soon, may be free to choose whether to keep supporting the union financially.

“Much as I oppose Janus, it’s kind of a wake up call for entrenched union leadership,” New York City teacher Arthur Goldstein blogged recently. “People need reasons to pay, and it’s on leadership to provide them.”

At issue is whether public unions can continue to charge “agency fees,” which are payments collected from people who are not members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, it is meant to help unions cover the cost of bargaining contracts that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are union members. Only a fraction of New York City teachers currently opt out of the union and pay the agency fees rather than dues — but experts expect many more teachers could leave the union if the Supreme Court bans the fees.

Mark Janus, a government employee in Illinois, is challenging the fee on the grounds that it violates his right to free speech. The Supreme Court deadlocked on a similar case in 2016 after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, observers expect a conservative-leaning court will side with Janus. If that happens, workers covered by unions — including the UFT — will be able to opt out of paying the fees that help keep the unions in operation.

“What that means is there will be a lot of teachers — potentially a lot of teachers in New York — who do not invest in the union,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the teacher advocacy group Educators for Excellence. “There will be potential growth in free riders who are benefiting from the work of the union without contributing to it.”

That’s why the UFT is kicking into action. The union has trained scores of members to knock on doors and talk to fellow teachers about the case. In about two months, the union estimates its members have knocked on 11,000 doors, sharing stories about how the union has helped them and hoping to convince teachers to keep financially supporting the work, even if the courts decide they’re no longer required to.

Union leaders are also launching “membership teams” in every school. Tasked with “building a sense of unity,” the union is asking the teams to engage in personal conversations with members, and plan shows of support for the union. Stone said his organization is organizing focus groups across the city to inform members about the case.

New York City teachers automatically become union members. They pay about $117 a month in dues, while social workers, paraprofessionals, and members in other school roles pay different amounts. Members can also choose to contribute to a separate political fund, which the union uses to lobby lawmakers and support union-friendly candidates.

About 2,000 educators opt-out of the union and pay agency fees instead — which are the same amount as regular dues, according to a UFT spokesman.

Ken Girardin, who has studied the potential fallout of Janus for New York’s unions as an analyst for the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy, said the number of agency-fee payers is low compared to other unions. But the Janus case could change that.

Girardin looked at what happened after Michigan enacted a “right to work” law, which forbid mandatory agency fees. The result: The Michigan Education Association, among the state’s largest unions, saw a 20 percent drop in dues and fees. Among full-time teachers, membership declined by 18 percent.

Girardin estimates an equivalent decrease in New York would mean the state’s teachers unions would take a $49 million hit annually. The UFT relies on dues and agency fees for about 85 percent of its $185 million budget, according to federal documents.

“It means they’d have to make up a course change,” Girardin told Chalkbeat, referring to the potential impact of the Janus decision. “They would have to treat their members like customers instead of people who are going to pay them regardless.”

Behind the scenes, the union is reportedly making contingency plans to deal with the potential budgetary fall-out. The New York Post recently cited unnamed sources who said union leadership is considering reducing the staff at some of its borough offices and cutting back on discretionary spending.

Girardin said public-sector unions in New York have already begun to fight for state legislation that would make it harder for members to drop out — a potential work-around in case the court sides with Janus.

Some UFT members say the threat of Janus is already being felt. The union recently voted down a resolution to support Black Lives Matter after leadership said it was a divisive issue at a time when the union can’t afford to lose members, according to an NY1 report.

Rosie Frascella, a Brooklyn high school teacher who helped organized Black Lives Matter at School events across the city, said she was disappointed in the leadership’s decision. But despite those internal disagreements, she said the threat posed by Janus should compel all teachers to speak out in support of their unions.

“You need to be in a union because it protects your right to teach,” she said. “And it stands up for our students and it creates the schools our children deserve.”

after parkland

As Trump doubles down on call to give teachers guns, the growing #ArmMeWith movement offers an alternative

Counselors, time, diverse classroom libraries, money — these are some of many things American teachers say they need in their schools instead of guns.

The pleas are coming via a social media hashtag, #ArmMeWith, that has spread quickly this week as teachers grapple with the aftermath of last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Some lawmakers and advocates — including President Donald Trump — have responded to the shooting by arguing that teachers should be armed. That idea has drawn scorn from educators who argue that more guns in schools would make students less safe and do little to address the underlying issues that contribute to violence in schools.

Now thousands of those educators are offering an alternative, using a template that two teachers shared on Instagram on Tuesday. Olivia Bertels and Brittany Wheaton already had substantial social media followings when they asked others to join them in starting a movement.

“My friend @thesuperheroteacher and I think that we should find more practical solutions than giving teachers guns,” Bertels wrote on her post with the template, where she asked to be armed with school supplies. “I hope you’ll take the same stance.”

More than 5,000 people so far have done exactly that on Instagram, and the hashtag is also trending on Twitter, bringing educators together in a cross-country conversation.

“I wish we didn’t have to do this,” wrote one Texas teacher, HowsonHistory, in a comment on a Rhode Island teacher’s post. “But am so glad that so many teachers are. Maybe soon we will be listened to.”

Here are some of the posts that have caught our eye.

“We, the teachers, have a few ideas.”

“#armmewith not guns, but counselors who do not double as test administrators and more than one overbooked, crowded therapist option for families with Medicaid and social workers without overloaded caseloads.”

“#armmewith the liberation of our students, a microphone to speak out against the policies you make from people who aren’t teachers, resources to empower our children, and love to keep our babies safe. We refuse to be armed with guns. #teachingwhilemuslim”

“Because there are so many other things to be arming ourselves with that will do more good than harm. I choose to #armMeWith kindness not violence and teach my students to do the same #jointhemovement”

“I took my first teaching job the year Sandy Hook happened. And the thing is, in that year and in all the years I have been a teacher since, I have stood in my classroom too many times and wondered where I would put my children if someone came into my classroom with a gun. I have stood on playgrounds and in hallways with dozens of students and wondered what would be the best action to take. I have sat through too many of my lunch breaks with my colleagues hashing over the best strategy for protecting our students. There has to be change. Teachers and students deserve to work and learn in peace. #armmewith #thingsteachersshouldnothavetosay”