Stewart: Where Are the Advocates as NYC Sends 100s of Troubled Teachers Into Struggling Schools?

New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks alongside NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio at a press conference in 2014. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Over a decade ago, New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and its most powerful union boss, Randi Weingarten, had a showdown over the handling of teachers who weren’t needed by the system, but who were contractually entitled to a job.

The labor-management clash resulted in a deal that allowed larger numbers of unwanted teachers to enter a man-made lake of incompetence bureaucratically labeled the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR). Sending teachers to the ATR is something like sending baseball players to minor league teams without the bats, gloves, balls, grass, plates, fans, coaches, uniforms, bleachers, training camps, or practices.

Play is optional.

Still, these sidelined teachers collect full salary and benefits and even earn tenure.

In 2007, then-Mayor Bloomberg’s team proposed removing teachers from the payroll if they weren’t teaching again within 12 months. A year’s severance would be a great deal to most people, but the United Federation of Teachers sued. Weingarten argued that displaced teachers were victims of age discrimination and the district needed to do a better job of helping them find work.

That claim was refuted by a 2008 study done by The New Teacher Project, a national nonprofit that researched the district’s teacher placement problem. Their findings showed 25 percent of teachers in the ATR were newbies, and, conversely, only 19 percent were aging veterans.

Nearly half of the teachers had been in the ATR long enough to be considered “long term.” Their job was not having a job, and many of them wanted no other job (why would they?).

Forty-six percent of these teachers failed to apply for any jobs through the city’s online employment system, according to the Teacher Project study. Most did not attend a job fair.

Defenders of the ATR teachers demand sympathy for them and attribute their dislocation to school closings, but a deeper look at the numbers tells a different story.

Using data from the Department of Education, the education advocacy group StudentsFirst wrote in a blog post that 32 percent of the ATR teachers were in the pool due to a legal or disciplinary case; 25 percent had been in the pool for six years or more; and the percentage of teachers in the ATR who were found by evaluators to be “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” was 12 times that for the overall teaching force for the 2014–15 school year.

Paying unselected teachers to live in occupational purgatory may sound like a bad idea, but in the reality of education politics, it was a win for all involved.

Job satisfaction for teachers who met with principals and mutually consented to their hiring spiked.

Principals in high-needs schools could avoid taking on teachers who had no business in any classroom, let alone classrooms where struggling students need the very best instruction.

Unwanted teachers had a place to chill, out of sight, out of mind.

And, of course, the union kept dues-paying members in their stable.

More important, kids were spared from ineffective teachers and academic ruin.

Now the times have changed. Budget pressures are making the ATR indefensible. With an astronomical price tag of $150 million last year (and an estimated cumulative $1 billion spent over 12 years), almost no one can support wasting scarce resources on teachers who aren’t teaching, many of whom haven’t taught in years.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s current administration says the logical thing to do is to empty the ATR pool by roughly half, shoehorning up to 400 of these teachers into schools that don’t want them, starting this month. That would be easier than locating a spine and fighting for the managerial prerogative to fire them.

When I wrote about this before, I was incredulous but still naive enough to believe some political force would stop the forced placement of these teachers. In my most cynical moments, I never thought education leaders in any major school district could get away with purposely unleashing a small army of ill-equipped teachers on students who already suffer from inadequate schools and poor achievement.

I was wrong. Apparently, the usual noisemakers are taking a knee on this one. Without a billionaire to blame, or a school reform nemesis to rally against, this is a rare occurrence of outrage fatigue and activist dereliction. Social justice headquarters is filled with nothing but bystanders now.

Can you imagine what would happen if some enterprising journalist unearthed a secret memo from founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz to her Success Academy principals informing them that they would have to hire substandard teachers as a cost-cutting measure?

The community organizing machine would roar with dramatic accusations of greed, self-interest, racism, and malice.

I reject the cynical, political, and corrupt muteness of people who have never been unfamiliar with microphones, cameras, and theatrics when their pockets are light but hide in the back pews when their funders threaten our children.

Where are the righteous cries for justice now?

Where is NYC’s public advocate, Letitia James, who sued the city over school buses that had no air conditioning and went after the Success Academy Charter Schools network for alleged bias against students with disabilities? What about Councilman Daniel Dromm and the Legal Aid Society who joined her in that fight?

Surely bad teachers are as worthy a cause as hot buses.

Where is Bertha Lewis, and her Black Institute? Where are Hazel Dukes and the NAACP; or Zakiyah Ansari and the Alliance for Quality Education; or, for God’s sake, Al Sharpton?

My guess is they are succumbing to the most painful moral paralysis that union money can buy. Labor bosses have their tongues. They have lost all moral high ground in the education debate and their credibility is evaporating.

Next time they come with recriminations for school reformers, let’s remind them that they forfeited when children needed them to win.

Game. Set. Match.

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