If you think I’m enjoying the spectacle of Gov. Andrew Cuomo turning the screws on school districts and their teachers’ unions, you’re right. I find it a welcome change from the not-so-old days of giving schools everything they ask for and more, mostly in deference to the all-powerful New York State United Teachers.
The governor wants teachers to be evaluated on how well they do their jobs, a subversive project from the point of view of the unions, and unlike some of his predecessors he knows how to use the power of his office to make it happen. He is offering school districts money to do it, and he threatens to withhold money if they don’t, and that ultimately puts pressure on the unions, because the jobs of their members are at stake.
Now, also, he is trying to expedite the notoriously slow and expensive process of disciplining teachers for misconduct.
I wish him luck.
It’s one of the strangleholds that the teachers’ unions have on school districts, and if he can loosen it, good for him.
Once a teacher passes a three-year probationary period, that teacher has what’s called tenure and is basically protected for life.
You can’t fire him or her unless he or she commits a felony in front of two witnesses, and even then it’s a tortuous process. I exaggerate only a little.
The state budget office says the average disciplinary case takes 22 months to go through the required hearing process, even though the law sets a time limit of about five months.
NYSUT dissents. “We don’t believe that number to be anywhere near accurate,” says its spokesman, Carl Korn, though he is unable to provide any other number, and the Education Department supports the budget office, giving a further breakdown of 742 days (a little more than two years) for cases that end in guilty verdicts and 512 days (17 months) for cases that end in not-guilty verdicts.
Jay Worona, general counsel for the state School Boards Association, says the cost to a school district of wading through the process averages $350,000, which is why school districts so rarely try to fire a teacher. It is just too time consuming and too expensive.
Administrators have to bring the case to the elected school board and get the board to prefer charges, as it’s called. The accused teacher will probably then be suspended, but will continue to get paid a full salary, so the district will have to hire a substitute for the duration.
The accused teacher has the same rights to an attorney, to the presentation of witnesses and the cross-examination of prosecution witnesses that a defendant has in a criminal trial. Before the hearing there will be a pre-hearing conference much like a pre-trial conference to make motions and whatnot.
The hearing will be presided over by an arbitrator from the American Arbitration Association, paid for by the state Education Department, though in practice the $3.8 million appropriated for that purpose has not been sufficient and the department has accumulated a deficit of $9.5 million on that budget line and some arbitrators are owed as much as $400,000 in back pay.
A teacher who is found guilty by one of these arbitrators can still appeal to state Supreme Court.
Gov. Cuomo proposes to limit the costs of the disciplinary proceedings by, among other things, setting maximum rates that can be charged by arbitrators, which now range from $900 to $1,800 for a five-hour day, and limiting the number of hours they can claim for studying a case. (If you think being an arbitrator is a good racket, you’re right.)
He proposes to disqualify arbitrators who do not adhere to procedural deadlines (30 days to file this motion, 10 days to respond, etc.)
And he proposes to shift the cost of arbitrators from the state to the school districts and their unions, that is, to “those who have skin in the game,” in the words of Morris Peters of the state budget office. That would presumably motivate both sides to speed up the process.
What it will amount to in the end, if the governor is successful, will be to make it a little bit easier to get rid of under-performing teachers, through the evaluation process, and misbehaving teachers, through the arbitration process. It won’t be a huge change, but it will be a change.
As things stand now, under-performing and misbehaving teachers alike are simply allowed to stay or, at worst, get moved around, except in the most egregious cases.
Testifying before the Legislature last year, the state Education Department’s chief operating officer, Valerie Grey, said, “The system is broken and needs to be fixed,” and certainly nothing has changed since then.
Korn, speaking for NYSUT, is at pains to point out that the majority of disciplinary cases get resolved before ever going to formal hearings. An accused teacher might resign or retire, or some other settlement might be reached, just as plea bargains are reached in most criminal cases, so the time consumed by arbitration proceedings is not the whole story. It’s the story only of the most difficult cases.
Fair enough, but it’s still revealing that it takes some two years and costs $350,000 to settle the most difficult cases. The result, as any school administrator will tell you, is that it’s impractical to try to fire a teacher. In 2010, only 150 cases were filed in the state (outside of New York City), and only 75 were closed; with about a third of those resulting in firing and another third in suspensions.
So once teachers are in, they’re in, and their union exists to make sure it stays that way.
The interesting thing about Andrew Cuomo is his ability to home in on these practical problems and use his political muscle to solve them. I am eager to see how this one turns out.