teachers with borders

Schools near state lines perform worse — and rules discouraging teachers from moving may be to blame

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Want a leg up in school? Don’t attend one near a state border.

That’s the surprising finding of a new study published in the Economics of Education Review. The likely culprit: certification and pension rules that discourage teachers from moving between states, limiting the labor pool on each side of the border.

The peer-reviewed paper focuses on test scores at public middle schools near a state boundary. Eighth-graders attending those schools, the researchers find, perform consistently worse in math than students at non-boundary schools. (The results are negative in reading, too, but smaller and not always statistically significant.)

One reason the findings ought to catch the attention of policymakers across the country: the data comes from 33 states, including big ones like Florida, New York, and Texas.

“We estimate that roughly 670,000 students are enrolled in middle schools nationally that are [considered] ‘intensely affected’ by a state boundary in our study,” the researchers write.

Of course, schools and students are not randomly assigned to be near state boundaries, so the study can’t definitively conclude that boundaries are the cause of lower performance. But the researchers — Dongwoo Kim, Cory Koedel, Shawn Ni, and Michael Podgursky, all of the University of Missouri — control for a number of student characteristics that might affect performance.

And while the study can’t pinpoint why a boundary seems to hurt test scores, the researchers have a theory: “state-specific pension and licensing policies” that discourage teachers from moving between states, likely forcing border schools to draw from a more limited pool of potential teachers.

In some places, those pension rules mean a substantial loss of retirement wealth if teachers move states mid-career. Complicated licensure rules that in some cases require experienced teachers to take certification exams or obtain additional degrees can also make that kind of switch practically difficult. Other research has found that teachers rarely move across state lines, even if they live near a boundary.

Why might that harm performance of schools near state lines?

Say a school in New York City has two science teachers and no math teachers, while a school right across the river in New Jersey has two math teachers and no science teachers. If each school needs exactly one teacher per subject, the solution is easy in theory: the New York City school gets a math teacher and loses a science one, and vice versa for the New Jersey school. But if certification or pension rules prevent that from happening, both schools lose out — and student achievement might suffer.

States aren’t typically eager to change those policies, though, for several reasons.

For one, states that require prospective teachers to clear a high bar to become certified may worry that making it too easy for an out-of-state teacher to receive a license could reduce teacher quality. A study from North Carolina provides some evidence for this argument, showing that teachers trained elsewhere were less effective than teachers trained in-state, though the difference was very small.

Another argument is that limiting teachers’ ability to bring pension money along with them when they move helps states hold on to their educators — even if they are in turn harmed when they can’t recruit teachers from elsewhere.

The latest study suggests that the net impact of those restrictions are negative. Still, the effects on students are quite small, implying that changes to pension and certification policies are unlikely to lead to large improvements in student performance.

But, the study points out, policies that eliminate the harm from attending school near a state line could help hundreds of thousands of students.

“Although the boundary effects are small on a per-student basis, they are spread across a very large population,” the researchers write.

holding pattern

The Denver district asked for state intervention in a pending teacher strike. Here’s what that means.

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Office of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.

After meeting with Gov. Jared Polis for roughly an hour Wednesday morning, Denver Public Schools officials formally requested state intervention in a potential teacher strike.

The request is not a surprise — Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova said she would ask for state intervention almost immediately after the Denver teachers union on Jan. 8 filed its notice of intent to strike — and it does not necessarily mean the strike won’t go forward. It could, however, delay it.

In a press release late Wednesday afternoon, Polis said he had not made a decision.

“The governor and the Department of Labor and Employment will continue to engage both sides and encourage both sides to return to the table and continue negotiating on a path forward,” the governor’s office said.

Without state intervention, a Denver strike could start as soon as Monday.

However, no action can occur while a decision is pending. Now that the district has filed its request, teachers cannot legally strike until a decision about intervention is made. That potentially provides time for more negotiations to occur. 

By law, the teachers union has 10 days to respond to the district’s request for intervention, and the department then has 14 days to make a decision. However, neither the union nor the department is required to take the full time, state labor officials said. That means this could all play out before the end of the week, clearing the way for a strike, or drag into February.

Denver Classroom Teachers Association members voted overwhelmingly to go on strike after months of negotiations over teacher pay and the structure of ProComp, a system that provides bonuses and incentives to teachers on top of base pay, ended without an agreement.

The two sides are about $8 million apart and also disagree strongly about how much money should go toward incentives for teachers at high-poverty schools. The union wants more money to go toward base pay, while the districts sees the incentives as an important tool in attracting and keeping teachers at more challenging schools.

Typically, the Department of Labor and Employment only intervenes when both sides request it. However, the head of the department, who is appointed by the governor, can intervene if he believes it is in the public interest or if the governor does. The state cannot impose an agreement on the two sides, but it can provide mediation, conduct fact-finding, or hold hearings to try to bring the two parties together.

During the intervention period, which can last as long as 180 days, teachers and special service providers, like nurses, counselors, and school psychologists, also could not legally strike.

Denver Public Schools and the teachers union already have been working with a mediator for months. In the Pueblo teachers strike in May, the state declined to intervene because the two sides had already used mediation and fact-finding. 

“The governor is being thoughtful about the appropriate role he can take in helping settle this,” Cordova said as she left her meeting with the governor at midday.

Shortly afterward, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Employment confirmed that Denver Public Schools had filed a request for intervention with the department.

Representatives of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association declined to comment, but posted a statement on their website. They told all members to report to work “until we hear otherwise.”

“We are disappointed in the district’s decision to involve a third party to delay our strike rather than negotiating in good faith with educators in Denver,” the union said. “We know the district has the resources to reach an agreement, and we hope to return to the table to continue negotiations on a fair compensation system for all teachers and [special service providers].”

Union representatives also met with the governor Wednesday.

“This is his effort to hear from both sides, to give both of us a chance to explain why we’ve created our proposals the way we have, and think about next steps,” Cordova said.

Cordova said she believes an outside party can help make progress where the two sides could not.

“There is deep mistrust on the part of our teachers,” she said. “Being in a place where we all feel confident we understand the facts would be really helpful.”

Denver Public Schools parents received an automated message from Cordova on Wednesday morning assuring them that school will continue as usual this week.

District officials are asking parents to make sure their contact information and any student medication records are up to date in the Parent Portal as they expect to use substitute teachers and redeployed central office staff — people who will not know students and their families the way classroom teachers do — to keep schools operating.

Here is the request the district filed with the state:



silver screen

United Federation of Teachers drops more than $1 million on new ad campaign

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/UFT
In a new ad released by The United Federation of Teachers, a teacher crouches at a student's desk and smiles.

Amid a wave of teacher activism nationwide and major threats to the influence of unions, the United Federation of Teachers is expected to spend more than $1 million on a primetime television and streaming ad featuring local educators.

The 30-second spot hit the airwaves on Jan. 23 and will run through Feb. 1, with an expected audience of 11 million television viewers and 4 million impressions online, according to the union.

Featuring a chorus of singing students, bright classrooms, and a glamour shot of the city, the ad is called “Voice.” A diverse group of teachers declares: “Having a voice makes us strong. And makes our public schools even stronger.” It ends with the message, “The United Federation of Teachers. Public school proud.”

The union, the largest local in the country, typically runs ads this time of year, as the legislative session in Albany heats up and city budget negotiations kick-off. But this time, the campaign launches against the backdrop of an emboldened teaching force across the country, with a teacher strike in Los Angeles and another potentially starting next week in Denver.

UFT is also eager to prove its worth after the recent Janus Supreme Court ruling, which could devastate membership by banning mandatory fees to help pay for collective bargaining. So far, membership has remained strong but the union could face headwinds from organized right-to-work groups and the sheer number of new hires that come into the New York City school system every year.

The ad will run locally during programs including “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Good Morning America,” on networks such as MSNBC and CNN, and on the streaming service Hulu. You can watch the ad here.