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Is Mayor Bloomberg caving on the UFT contract?

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — up by 18 points over his opponent in the latest polls and with Election Day next week — apparently is not willing to use his position to forge new ground with the teacher contract he is negotiating with the United Federation of Teachers. The current contract expires Saturday.

In the first apparent “leak” from the tight-lipped Bloomberg camp, Chris Cerf, now a Bloomberg campaign education advisor and until recently Joel Klein’s deputy chancellor, announced in a WNYC interview yesterday that the Mayor agreed with Bill Thompson that performance bonuses should be handed out to teachers on a school-wide basis, rather than based on the individual merit of teachers. This disclosure, first covered by GothamSchools, likely was a calculated move to dampen expectations before a contract agreement is announced.

If true, the Mayor is sacrificing the straightforward principle that good teachers should get paid more than bad teachers. Now, under the Mayor’s plan (consistent with the UFT’s long held stance), if any bonuses are handed out in a school, everyone — regardless of merit — will get a bonus. Kind of makes it hard to call it merit pay anymore!

This move ends any speculation about whether the Mayor intended to fight the UFT to open up the contract to allow greater education reforms in the City. Bloomberg, despite his vast wealth and Type A personality, apparently has no stomach for a fight with the UFT on the eve of his attempt to secure a third term, after earlier repealing the city’s term-limit law.

Bloomberg’s apparent cave on teacher performance pay may signal a desire to get a contract agreement at any cost, which would mean other key reforms may be dead as well. The casualty list likely includes: removing the data “firewall,” placing time limits on the famed ATRs, and clearing out the City’s “rubber rooms.” Let’s take each in turn.

Student data “firewall”: Last year, the UFT and the state teachers union got the Governor and State Legislature to approve a law that prohibits districts from considering the performance of a teacher’s students when deciding whether that teacher has earned the right to lifetime tenure.  The ban on looking at this data is called a “firewall.”

President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have made clear that they will view such laws as negative factors when ranking state applications for grants from the $4 billion Race to the Top fund. In response, California recently repealed its data firewall, and Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle has called for Wisconsin’s firewall to be repealed.  Nevada — a state used to gambling — is the only state rolling the dice and refusing to repeal its firewall.

In this context, the Mayor should demand an agreement from the UFT to allow New York’s law to sunset next April.

ATRs:  ATRs have nothing to do with ATVs. This acronym refers to Absent Teacher Reserves in New York City. Presently, when teachers are “excessed,” they are placed in a reserve pool rather than being fired. The idea is to give the affected teachers time to get other employment within the City school system. But the UFT has taken this protection to an absurd length. In the current contract, which expires Saturday, there is no time limit on how long teachers can stay in these paid positions. This is costing the City millions of dollars annually, an expense that is hard to justify in these economic times.

Further, the city’s budget officials insisted that Chancellor Joel Klein, who opposes the unlimited teacher reserve positions, to order principals to hire teachers from these pools even if they could find a better-qualified candidate who was not on the ATR roster. Assuming that the quality of teaching is the number one factor in the success or failure of a child’s education, this is an outrageous practice.

But, the UFT feels job protection for adults is more important than ensuring every child a quality teacher.  In fact, when it negotiated the ATR provisions in the current contract, the UFT, on its website bragged that the new contract language: “gives our members a no-layoff provision.” At first, the UFT did not admit the implications of this policy — cautioning its membership that “up until now, we have downplayed this gain” for fear of complicating negotiations to finalize the language.

Rubber Rooms:  Steven Brill, in a devastating New Yorker article, highlighted another absurdity of union policies.  In New York City, when the City finds a teacher to be incompetent or otherwise in need of removal, they are corralled in office spaces throughout the City because it is too time consuming and expensive to remove a teacher in New York City thanks to union-inspired protections for tenured teachers.

Let’s hope that the Mayor’s apparent decision to abandon the notion of paying good teachers more than bad teachers does not indicate an across-the-board caving on these other three key issues — allowing the use of student data in tenure decisions, placing a time limit on ATRs, and eliminating “rubber rooms” through tenure reform.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.