School aid cuts prod teachers and districts

Of course I am enjoying the flap over lost school aid due to the reluctance of teachers to be evalua

Of course I am enjoying the flap over lost school aid due to the reluctance of teachers to be evaluated on their job performance.

Something that is so elementary in much of the world is revolutionary in the world of public education. What? Measure how well I do my job? Possibly get rid of me if I do it poorly? Saints preserve us!

But it’s going around, ladies and gentlemen, and the public school teachers of New York, for all the strength of their unions, are gradually yielding, if only for reasons of economics.

Remember, it was just a couple of years ago that the state lost out on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid because of its inability to get the teachers’ unions to agree to job evaluation. That led to a new state law and new state regulations, in effect forcing evaluations. New York State United Teachers actually supported the law but sued over the regulations and now claims to be a supporter of measuring teacher performance.

“The law is the right law,” says NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn, adding, however, that “it’s more important to do it right than just do it,” as a way of explaining the delay in 10 school districts, including Albany and Schenectady, establishing evaluation procedures.

It’s money that makes the difference.

Take Schenectady, where the school district just saw a $2 million state grant suspended because it has not yet been able to negotiate a deal with its teachers for job evaluation. Acting Superintendent John Yagielski tells me $400,000 of that grant was already spent, and when I asked him what it was spent on, he said, “teachers’ salaries and benefits.”

Of course. What else? The money was earmarked for improving the high school, and that didn’t mean painting walls or planting shrubbery; it meant adding teachers and adding classes so that something more than 59 percent of the students would graduate.

Likewise a $2 million federal grant under the so-called Race to the Top program. That too is in jeopardy, according to state Education Commissioner John B. King and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and for the same reason — some local teachers’ unions have yet to agree on the working details of evaluations.

The loss of that money will hurt teachers directly. It’s where part of their pay comes from, and that’s why they are coming to heel, in my view.

Gov. Cuomo wants to bring them to heel, and so does President Obama, and they’re doing it by offering and withdrawing money, the same way they influence the building of highways and the repairing of bridges.

In Schenectady, negotiations have been going on since August for a new contract that will include provisions for measuring job performance, and the best that Superintendent Yagielski could come up with by the state’s deadline of Dec. 31 was a mere “progress report,” drafted with the local union president.

He graciously refuses to blame the union for intransigence. “It’s not a question of having resistance,” he says. “We are working in a very collaborative fashion.”

He emphasizes what a complicated business it is, working out the details of how teachers will be observed and how they will be graded, what appeals process they will have recourse to in case of a poor evaluation, and so forth, and I sympathize. It must be grueling when you’re up against an organization that long used its strength to keep its members unaccountable, with automatic pay raises every year regardless of how well they do their jobs and immune to the normal employer devices of demotion, punishment and firing.

It must be like negotiating with a police union over the monitoring of sick time. You have to dicker over every little tiny detail, or they’ll beat you in the grievance process, for sure.

Nor are all the details tiny. The law provides that if a teacher is adjudged ineffective, the district must provide that teacher with an improvement plan, and if after a second year the teacher still does not measure up, he or she can be put through a 60-day process leading to removal.

“Designing what the teacher improvement plan would look like, at a time of $1.2 billion in budget cuts and a tax cap, has proved to be a challenge for many districts,” Korn says, and I bet he’s right.

You would have to design that program down to its finest elements, and you’d have to spend a lot of money on it in order to satisfy the union, or else they’d fight you on it. You couldn’t just tell a teacher to shape up or ship out.

It must be brutal at the negotiating table when these things are being discussed.

Korn blames the state Education Department for rushing things. “To yank the money away in mid-year to meet an artificial deadline doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “It’s education bureaucracy at its worst.”

It might be, though I bet if there were no deadline, artificial or otherwise, nothing would ever change. The two sides could argue till Doomsday over the proper makeup of a teacher improvement plan and the ins and outs of an appeals process, and we’d stay right where we are.

Yanking money is one thing that gets a school district’s attention and a union’s attention.

And it’s possible to yank the money because, let’s face it, there has been something of a culture shift these last few years, which has not favored the teachers’ unions. For a couple of decades they built their power without challenge, to the point where they had the Democratic Party in their pocket nationally and both parties in their pocket in New York.

Now we have both a Democratic president and a Democratic governor — not to mention Tea Partiers everywhere — saying, whoa, you at least have to demonstrate that you’re doing a decent job before we give you any more of the store.

It’s bound to be a painful process.

Categories: Opinion

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