Teachers with the United Federation of Teachers in the New York public school system have their first contract in five years. Pending votes by the membership and the union board, an agreement has been reached. This is almost newsworthy enough in and of itself: teachers citywide will be receiving their first pay raises since 2009 and backpay for their time working under the lapsed contract. They’re trading these monies for concessions on marginal health care costs (some of this hasn’t been detailed yet and could prove a bigger deal down the road) and new policies about handling the teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR). This is the pool of teachers who have been idled either as a result of layoffs or disciplinary action (the later assigned to what has been called the “rubber room,") but who remain eligible to claim a full pay. At an annual cost of $120 million in salaries, the ATR has long been a target of mayors and commissioners, especially during the Bloomberg administration, who hoped to thin the numbers in the program. Tenure rules and general bad blood between the union and the city have made the problem intractable. Now, teachers in the ATR will be the first to fill vacancies but will also be subject to relaxed procedures for dismissal if they continue to cycle back into the pool. Those with unresolved conduct issues would presumably be excluded. Some teachers see a threat in this, but it sounds like fairly good progress in a system with 1,200 of these teachers sitting largely idle.
At the other end of the spectrum, the union granted the De Blasio administration the power to give forms of merit bonuses to worthy teachers. Despite misgivings about favoritism and the methods for identifying meritorious teachers, the UFT and the DoE signed off on a sliding scale of pay bumps for selected high-quality teachers who serve in various ways as mentors to their lower performing colleagues. Bonuses for teachers who opt to take employment in underserved schools would also be given. In all, the effort has the chance of bringing great knowledge exchange to the system and creates greater incentives for dynamism within the workforce. These seem to be almost unequivocally good things.
But the contract in itself isn’t, in some ways, the most important story. Perhaps more important, as we find ourselves in another contentious state testing season, is the shift in tone that’s potentially signaled by the fact of a contract at all. For years, it has seemed that the Department and the teachers have been working at cross-purposes. The Department seemed to be shoving testing metrics, curricula, and punitive measures on the schools. The teachers were escalating tensions and going to the extremes of rhetoric that only cost them public good will. This agreement could provide the space for the De Blasio administration, the DoE and the teachers to take more concerted action to improve student outcomes. There are enough cultural and political forces dragging on our public schools; constant, nasty strife between the DoE and the UFT needn’t be another yoke on our schools’ progress. Here’s hoping this marks a new start!