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Mulgrew spells conditions for backing college loan forgiveness

The UFT would consider supporting Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to pay back the loans of top college graduates who become city teachers — but only under certain conditions.

In a letter to Chancellor Dennis Walcott today, UFT President Michael Mulgrew spelled out what it would take for him to support a loan forgiveness program of the type Bloomberg proposed in January during his State of the City address. At the time, Bloomberg said the city would give teachers in the “top tier” of their college class $25,000 to repay their loans. A Department of Education spokeswoman said Bloomberg’s proposal would likely apply to students in the top quarter of their class.

Other proposals Bloomberg made at the time — closing and reopening 33 struggling schools, increasing the salaries of teachers who earn high ratings in a new evaluation system — immediately drew union censure. But Mulgrew did not dismiss the loan forgiveness proposal.

In today’s letter, he explains what it would take to bring the union on board. The program should be focused as much on retention as on recruitment of teachers, he writes, and should not give teachers the full $25,000 at one time, so that they have an incentive to remain in the classroom. Plus, the department should commit to mentoring all new teachers, not just the ones who did well in college.

“The point of such a program is not just to bring in recruits – it is to bring in candidates who will learn the craft of teaching and build a successful career in our schools,” Mulgrew said in the letter. “It is absurd to think that a group of recent college graduates, however high their academic rankings, can sweep into New York City public school classrooms and perform instant miracles.”

Mulgrew also says the program should apply to current teachers who were in the top of their college classes, too — a costly proposition for a program whose funding source is not at all clear. Bloomberg has said he would find private dollars to fund loan forgiveness if the union declines to sign on to the initiative, but Mulgrew says in the letter that union lawyers believe the city does not have that right. If the program happens on the public dime, it’s likely that the union would be asked to help the city find places to free up funds.

Mulgrew’s letter to Walcott comes day after a top Department of Education official accused the union chief of stalling on the loan forgiveness program. “The teachers union can try to distract New Yorkers with other issues, but it is inexcusable that the UFT would hold up a program that would provide loan forgiveness to outstanding students who decide to devote themselves to a career of teaching,” David Weiner, a deputy schools chancellor for labor, said in a statement, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Mulgrew’s entire letter to Walcott is below.

Dear Chancellor Walcott: We believe that New York City’s traditional problems in recruiting and retaining new teachers have been significantly increased by the recent release of the Teacher Data Reports and the general perception of an atmosphere of hostility from Mayor Bloomberg and his allies in business and the media. In view of this, it may well be in the system’s interest to offer a loan forgiveness program to selected teacher candidates. While the UFT could support such a program in principle, there are a number of important issues that need to be negotiated. In short, in order to make sure the public’s money is well spent, the program should focus as much on retention as on recruiting. In addition, we would expect the program to have clear guidelines and a transparent selection process, and to be open for qualified graduates of any accredited college, with special arrangements available for colleges that do not rank their graduates. Retention The point of such a program is not just to bring in recruits – it is to bring in candidates who will learn the craft of teaching and build a successful career in our schools. Everyone with even the most basic working knowledge of how schools actually work understands that first and even second-year teachers spend most of their time learning to cope with the challenges of the classroom. It is absurd to think that a group of recent college graduates, however high their academic rankings, can sweep into New York City public school classrooms and perform instant miracles. Therefore, to the extent such recruits will add real value, it will be in their third and later years. Under these circumstances, loan forgiveness would have to be phased in – at perhaps $5,000 a year for five years. Alternatively, in order to help make sure these recruits make a long-term commitment to our schools, the loan forgiveness could be phased in with even smaller annual amounts until the recruits are granted tenure, or the program could require that recipients remain in the teaching force for at least three years after their final payment. Such a system could help reduce the revolving door of new teacher attrition, which has been averaging 8 to 12 percent a year. The higher the upfront sum, the more the system stands to lose if such individuals follow the traditional attrition pattern. For instance, a cohort of 100 teachers who received $25,000 upfront would represent a total commitment of $2.5 million – and a new commitment of $2.5 million every year that a new cohort is recruited. If we had reason to believe that all teachers recruited through such a program would stay for at least five years, it would make a certain fiscal sense. But if the usual attrition rate applied to these individuals, every cohort would in effect represent a loss of $1.25 million in public funds, as half or more of these highly qualified individuals left for other school systems or other careers, taking with them the experience they have gained. The UFT is willing to enter into negotiations on such a loan forgiveness program in the context of an agreement to deal with the overall retention issue, specifically a protocol that would provide effective professional assistance and mentoring for all new teachers, along with a commitment to loan forgiveness for current teachers who have joined the system in recent years and who meet whatever program criteria are eventually established for that program. You should also be aware that we have determined that the Board of Education (the DOE) has a legal obligation to negotiate an agreement with the UFT before implementing a loan forgiveness program, whether it uses private or public funds. We are interested in negotiating an initiative that is more than a mayoral press conference, but a serious effort to recruit and retain outstanding candidates to teach in New York City public schools. We look forward to hearing from you in the immediate future to set up a meeting to discuss this proposal. Sincerely, Michael Mulgrew