Bill de Blasio’s New York has started putting them back in the classroom, especially in poor areas.
What should a city do with poor teachers who, thanks to union rules, cannot be fired? For years New York has let them linger on its Absent Teacher Reserve, where they are paid without having a permanent spot in any school. But now the city is taking the opposite approach: putting them back into classrooms.
The ATR is an example of what happens when reform runs up against inflexible labor rules. In 2005 Mayor Michael Bloomberg ended the practice of filling teaching slots in New York’s public schools by seniority. Instead, he gave principals increased power to hire the teachers they thought best. The complication was the union contract. Laid-off teachers could either look for a position elsewhere or join the ATR, where they receive full salary and benefits as they move across schools doing short-term work, often as substitutes.
The ATR differs from the notorious “rubber rooms,” or reassignment centers, where suspended teachers accused of misconduct once awaited adjudication of their cases. Teachers aren’t placed on the ATR because they are facing dismissal. They just can’t (or won’t) persuade a principal to hire them. Some have received ineffective teaching ratings. Others have records of disciplinary problems like absenteeism or sleeping on the job.
As the Bloomberg administration closed the city’s worst schools, the ATR pool grew. On the first day of school in 2013 it included 1,957 teachers. Since Bill de Blasio became mayor in 2014, his administration has offered ATR teachers buyouts and given principals an incentive to hire them by having the city cover part of their salaries for the first two to three years. By the end of the 2016-17 school year there were 822 teachers left in the pool; that year paying ATR teachers cost the city about $150 million.
Marcus Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an associate professor at Boston University. Follow him on Twitter here. This piece was adapted from the Winter 2018 Issue of City Journal.