Don't buy the union myth about teacher flight
By now millions of New Yorkers have probably come to believeâ€”quite sincerelyâ€”that the biggest problem facing the city's public schools is the imminent loss of our experienced teachers.
The mass flight of teachers to the suburbs in search of higher salaries was the message the United Federation of Teachers repeated relentlessly during its recent $2 million-plus media campaign. As one of the UFT ads put it, "Many experienced teachers in New York City are being cherry picked by the [suburban] schools."
The UFT's claim is a classic piece of media disinformation, foisted on the public in order to strengthen the union's hand in upcoming contract talks. While the ads were being broadcast, I asked a union spokesman how many New York City teachers were actually taking jobs in the suburbs. He told me that the union hadn't even bothered collecting such information.
I then conducted my own informal survey, asking officials in a number of suburban districts how many city teachers they were hiring each year. Extrapolating from their responses I came up with a rough estimate of 700 teachers each year who left the city for the suburbsâ€”or less than 1 percent of the city's teacher force.
After publishing this information, I was personally attacked by UFT President Randi Weingarten in the union newspaper, although she conceded that my estimate of 700 "could be debated." Well, thanks to Professor Michael Podgursky of the University of Missouri Economics Department, it's no Ionger debatable.
Professor Podgursky was given access to the state's Personnel Master List, including the Social Security numbers of all teachers and where they were teaching. He then was able to come up with the exact number of transfers. For the two school years 1996-97 and 1997-98, there was an average net outflow of 293 New York City teachers to the suburbs.
That's less than one half of 1 percent of all city teachers. Itâ€™s a shame the city has to lose any qualified teachers, but this hardly constitutes what the UFT calls a â€œcivic crisisâ€ thatâ€™s about to â€œwreak havocâ€ on the school system.
Given the UFTâ€™s record of dissembling about the exodus to the suburbs, there's no reason to trust the union's claim that 14,000 of the system's senior teachers will be retiring in the next two years. Yet, even if the number of retirements turned out to be that high, it wouldn't be a good reason for city and Board of Education officials to adopt the UFT's proposed remedy for filling those vacanciesâ€”huge across-the-board salary increases for all teachers.
A far more effective approach would be to target some of the money available for raises toward the biggest shortage areasâ€”math, science and foreign-language teachers. If the union were serious about dealing with the real, rather than the imagined, teacher shortage it would not cling so adamantly to the single salary scale for all teachers that is at the heart of the present union contract. That uniform and inflexible pay scale makes it harder to recruit new teachers where they are really needed and defies any rational labor-market strategy.
Any future teacher shortages could also be dealt with by making it easier for young people with university degrees to go into teaching without wasting a year of their lives on useless and expensive courses in an education school. New schools Chancellor Harold Levy has said that he plans to allow such prospective teachers to be certified by the Board of Education after getting through a very short, hands-on training course conducted by the Board itself. Levy's plan immediately and predictably produced grumbling by the UFT and some of the graduate education schools.
One early test of Mr. Levy's willingness to stand up to the system's vested interests will be how quickly and effectively he begins to implement this alternative teacher licensing track.