There are more than a few things to be said about the new collective bargaining agreement New York City has tentatively struck with the American Federation of Teachers’ Big Apple local, the United Federation of Teachers. Based on what we know so far, not a lot of it is positive. Simply put, the proposed contract doesn’t actually do anything to address the problems of low-quality teaching that is a reason why the city’s 11-year-long reform effort has only been partly successful. And the deal doesn’t reduce the long-term burdens — including $29 billion in unfunded pension liabilities — that will burden taxpayers and children for decades to come.
At least the new contract will, in theory, streamline New York City’s process for keeping laggard teachers out of classrooms. Or at least that is the plan. By immediately terminating low-performing instructors who are sent back to the city’s Absent Teacher Reserve pool for a second time, the city can stop continually paying teachers who are both incompetent and not working. Whether or not principals will be forced to hire the 1,200 or so laggards currently in the virtual rubber room by not being allowed to choose between those instructors and those who might be better-performing is another question. But at least, in theory, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña are committed to allowing principals to retain their power to hire and fire teachers fit for their schools.
But the rest of the contract doesn’t offer much in the way of good news, either for advancing the Big Apple’s systemic reform efforts or in helping the city improve its long-term fiscal condition.
The contract’s plan to offer an array of bonuses to teachers — including $5,000 for working in schools serving the poorest kids, and $7,500 for allowing colleagues to observe their work and share best practices — won’t likely do much to improve student achievement. This is because the amount of the bonus is paltry to the salaries veteran teachers already receive and will receive under the new contract. For example, if the $5,000 bonus was given out now, it would only amount to five-to-six percent of salary for a 22-year-veteran already earning between $88,259 and $100,049 a year (depending on degrees attained) under the current contract; if that veteran earns between $104,146 and $118,058 by 2018, as expected under the new contract, the value of the bonus is even less. Why would a veteran teacher, who already has a $1 million pension annuity, and protection from reductions in force, work harder for a mere $5,000?
What about younger teachers. If the $5,000 bonus was currently available, it would only equate to around six percent of salary for a 10-year veteran earning between $67,095 and $78,885 annually; if the pay increases to between $79,172 and $93,084 a year by 2018, the value of the bonus is bupkis. When you keep in mind that younger teachers are likely to take a hit in future earnings upon retirement because of any likely pension reform, those bonuses go from being merely miniscule to insult upon injury.
The bonuses will also mean little for kids because they don’t actually reward teachers for their own individual success in improving student achievement. Offering a bonus of as much as $20,000 to a “master teacher” for sharing her practices won’t mean much for kids if those practices don’t actually improve their literacy and numeracy. Given that the contract doesn’t specify how the city will select those “best practices” — and doesn’t seem to involve the use of objective student test growth data in picking which teachers will be considered master instructors — New York City will end up handing out lots of money with little in the way of results to show for it.
As the private sector learned a long time ago — and as New York City should have realized three years ago from the results of its own performance pay initiative — a bonus must be equivalent to 20 percent of salary in order to sufficiently motivate performance improvement. More importantly, Big Apple teachers — especially younger instructors who now make up the majority of all working in the city’s classrooms — want more than just small bonuses. The socially entrepreneurial among them want real rewards, especially in the form of grants and other opportunities, to step out and develop innovative programs that can improve student achievement. While the contract does take a few step toward providing such incentives — including some pay for taking on leadership roles — it isn’t enough for those teachers who want and deserve more.
The contract’s plan to offer two additional parent-teacher conferences and allow teachers to devote an additional 40 minutes a week to reaching out to families sounds good. But given the fact that old-school parent-teacher conferences are often scheduled at inconvenient times — especially for families from poor backgrounds whose parents are working at night — and that teachers aren’t getting any compensation for improving their outreach to families, none of this will lead to more family engagement. In any case, old-school family engagement is no longer acceptable in an era of Parent Trigger laws and school choice. Families should be lead decision-makers in schools, and this contract does nothing to advance that.
More importantly, the additional time given to teachers to call and e-mail families comes at the expense of children struggling in school. Why? Because the contract will allow teachers to skip out on providing additional tutoring. As Mona Davids of the New York City Parents Union points out in a press release issued today, children in the most need of help will lose out on 6,750 minutes (or five days) of additional instructional time. This shortchanging of children is just plain unacceptable.
The proposed contract doesn’t exactly help the Big Apple’s bottom line.
New York City’s healthcare and other fringe benefit costs for teachers alone will have likely increased by 20 percent within the past year (after increasing by 10 percent between 2008 and 2013), according to data from the Citizens Budget Commission of New York. Yet the city has no serious plan in place to address these growing expenses. Although de Blasio proclaims that the deal will help the city reduce its overall healthcare costs by $3.4 billion over four years, there are no details as to how that will happen. While it is possible that de Blasio will consolidate prescription purchases and other healthcare activities, it can only happen if the city’s other unions agree to the deal. This may not happen because of the fears among the city’s police, firefighters, and corrections officer unions that their rank-and-file members will bear the brunt of any cuts and that the deal with the AFT will be funded on their proverbial backs. So the promised cost savings may not happen at all.
Even if those cost savings do materialize, they won’t offset the likely increases in healthcare costs to come. Before the city’s contract with the AFT was struck, the costs of healthcare and other fringe benefits were expected to increase by four percent this coming year.
The easiest way for New York City to stem its healthcare burdens is to stop providing free health insurance and require teachers to pay at least 20 percent of the tab. Even New York State requires its civil servants to pay 10 percent of healthcare costs. But because the city is still paying the full tab under the proposed contract, it has limited flexibility in stemming costs.
Meanwhile the proposed contract doesn’t help the Big Apple deal with another long-term cost of decades of dealmaking with the AFT local: It’s growing defined-benefit pension deficit. As Dropout Nation reported last September, the city officially reports an underfunding of $23 billion, but it is more-likely $29 billion, or 20 percent higher. One reason for the insolvency lies with the fact that teachers contribute just six cents to their pension for every dollar contributed by the city; this, in turn, is a consequence of the deals struck with the AFT by de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, to provide more-generous annuities to retiring teachers in exchange for the union’s acquiescence to his reform efforts. Requiring teachers to pay more toward their retirements would be a key step in reducing the pension deficit. But because de Blasio didn’t even broach that subject, these unsustainable costs will make it more difficult for the city to continue four decades-long success in addressing crime and other quality-of-life issues.
Hopefully the deal may end up being better than your editor surmises. But it wouldn’t be shocking if it turns out to be even worse. So far, de Blasio has shown that he isn’t all that serious about either reform or addressing the city’s long-term financial woes. Which is especially shocking given the leverage he has over the AFT local given that it never endorsed his campaign for mayor until after he defeated its favored candidate.