Double-down

In lieu of new evaluations, city looks to options in union contract

Chancellor Dennis Walcott speaks to business leaders at the Association for a Better New York breakfast.

After years of trying to win new powers to fire under-performing teachers, the city is turning to rights it has had all along.

Speaking to a coalition representing the city’s business elite this morning, Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced that the city would move to fire any teacher who receives “unsatisfactory” ratings for two years in a row. He also announced that the city would ask the UFT to allow buyouts for teachers who have been without permanent positions for more than a year.

Both policies are already permitted under the law and the city’s contract with the teachers union — a fact that drew ridicule from UFT President Michael Mulgrew.

“It’s theater of the absurd. It’s getting old,” he said. “I think they believe that everyone’s a fool. They’ve made an announcement about something they already have the ability to do.”

Mulgrew noted that the union contract already allows Department of Education officials to do exactly what Walcott’s two plans announced today would do—incentivize teachers without permanent jobs to take buyouts, and require schools to remove teachers who receive consecutive unsatisfactory ratings. He also said the buyout plan was proposed by the union several times over the past three years, but the city rebuffed it.

“In their own minds they’ve convinced themselves they’re out there making news and being bold,” he said, adding that the city should already know the union is willing to negotiate a buyout program. “I don’t know how you can negotiate just by making a speech.”

Negotiations between the city and union over new teacher evaluations broke down in December. Those evaluations would have done away with the current teacher rating system and made it harder for teachers to earn top ratings and would have required the city to try to fire teachers with the lowest ratings.

Walcott said today that the city still wants to adopt new evaluations — and that the new policies would not go into effect if new evaluations are in place by next year — but the announcement shows that the city is seeking a plan B.

The question of how to rid the school system of weak teachers has perplexed the Bloomberg administration for years. The Department’s attempts to fire teachers in the ATR pool when Joel Klein was chancellor fell short, as did efforts to end the last-in-first-out policy that governs which teachers principals can ask to leave schools.

Educators for Excellence, a teacher advocacy group, also suggested that the city’s plans were un-novel solutions to a bigger problem: the lack of a teacher evaluation deal.

“These are band aid solutions,” the organization’s founders said in a statement. “The only way to ensure that students are in classrooms with effective teachers is for both sides to finally negotiate a meaningful multi-measure evaluation system that gives educators the support, feedback, and recognition they deserve and need.”

Walcott declined to take questions from reporters, an atypical choice for him, but department officials filled in some details this afternoon.

Of the 831 teachers now in the ATR pool, most would be eligible for the program if it begins this fall, officials said. The program will be open to any teachers who have spent one year or more in the ATR pool, and its start date will be determined during union-city negotiations, which are scheduled to begin next week.

City officials said the buyout offers will be more generous than a similar buyout program that has been used in other cities, including Dallas and D.C.. Depending on their number of years teaching, city teachers can expect to receive offers ranging from $1,000 (for one to five years of teaching) to $20,000 (for 20 years) or more.

According to statistics provided by the city, the average salary for members of the ATR pool is $82,420, plus an average of $30,000 in annual benefits. ATR teachers are expected to actively search for permanent jobs while they are fulfilling their week-to-week assignments. But officials said nearly half of the ATR teachers have not submitted a single city job application or attended a city recruitment event in the past year.

The total cost of the ATR pool has ranged over the years, and the exact figure has been a source of disagreement between city and union officials. But the city has never strayed from its position that the cost is too high.

Other figures the city provided portray the ATR pool in a somewhat bleak light: Nearly a third of its teachers were removed from their last permanent job assignment through some formal disciplinary action, nearly a quarter have been in the pool for two or more years, and nearly one fifth have received at least one U-rating. 

The ATR pool could grow this summer as the city moves to close more schools at once than ever before, and relocate many of their teachers. Department of Education spokesman Matt Mittenthal said the pool has been shrinking this year, perhaps thanks to a policy change that requires ATRs to act as substitute teachers, rotating through schools from week to week. That change has motivated some principals to offer permanent jobs to teachers they may otherwise have never met, but it has also encouraged some teachers to quit their jobs or retire.

But without this extra push from the city, Mittenthal said, “We don’t think the pool is going to get much smaller, given how it is now.”

The city’s second proposal of the morning, to prevent elementary school students from being taught by a U-rated teacher for two years in a row, would affect the student class assignments for 217 elementary school teachers who received U-ratings in 2011. The city is planning to issue some kind of policy guideline to principals that they may not assign the 4,000 students being taught by those teachers this year to another U-rated teacher in the fall.

The third prong of Walcott’s announcement calls for schools to formalize a practice already in use—the removal of classroom teachers who have received U-ratings in the past two years. 235 teachers fit that bill, and half of them are still teaching in permanent classroom jobs. The rest are either in the ATR pool or are awaiting dismissal decisions.

Many of those teachers have appealed their second U-ratings. If the U-rating decisions are upheld after the appeal process, the city will formally see their dismissal. Officials said the DOE currently relies on principals to file these charges against teachers, but principals often decide not to. In the future, the DOE will initiate the dismissal process from its central office.

What 'underfunded' means

What you need to know to follow the money debate behind the teacher walkouts

Colorado teachers wearing "Red for Ed" gather in front of the Capitol on the first of two days of protest around school funding. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Colorado teachers are marching at the Capitol this week for more school funding and better pay. Advocates for more education funding will point to the $7 billion that the state has withheld from schools since the Great Recession, while fiscal conservatives point to the billions the state has spent on schools in those same years.

Here’s what you need to know to follow the money debate behind these teacher days of action.

What does it mean when people say Colorado schools are underfunded?

Back in 2000, Colorado voters approved a constitutional amendment that said the state had to increase K-12 education funding every year based on inflation and population. It was meant to reverse years of budget cuts in the 1990s.

When the Great Recession hit and revenues declined, state budget writers didn’t think they could meet that obligation and pay for other functions of state government, so they started holding money back. This reduction is known as the budget stabilization factor or the negative factor.

The negative factor ballooned to more than a billion dollars in the early aughts as the lagging effects of the recession hit government revenue.

Impact of the negative factor on Colorado education spending

Source: Joint Budget Committee legislative staff *Does not include federal money or local mill levy overrides.

State spending on K-12 education actually declined in some years, and many school districts froze pay and cut programs. More recently, lawmakers have reduced the negative factor and increased education spending, but the state continues to hold money back.

So that’s one thing people mean when they say Colorado schools are underfunded.

Republicans dispute this characterization. The Colorado Supreme Court, in a split decision in 2015, ruled that the state’s school funding and use of the negative factor is constitutional. Schools have other sources of revenue, including federal dollars and local property tax revenue.

The National Education Association’s 2018 state rankings puts Colorado 28th in per-pupil funding, when federal, state, and local dollars are included.

There are other considerations. Analyses that look at equity – how fairly Colorado distributes money among students and districts – give the state low marks. There’s major variation in per-student spending around the state. Colorado also spends much less money on education than most states with similar levels of wealth and economic activity.

At the same time, the state is paying a larger share of K-12 costs than ever because tax provisions in the constitution have reduced local property taxes in many parts of the state.

What about local property taxes?

After state officials calculate the amount of money each school district should get, they collect that money first from the local property taxes. If that doesn’t meet the amount set by the formula, the state fills in the rest.

School districts don’t actually benefit much from increases in property values. If a school district collects more money because homes are worth more, the state holds back a corresponding amount.

This arrangement would seem to benefit the state at the expense of local districts, but in many rural communities, two conflicting provisions in the state constitution have had the effect of reducing assessed value. Because the state fills in the lost revenue, the state’s share of education spending is going up.

There are two ways local school districts can raise additional local money, but both require voter approval. Some communities, including Denver and Boulder, have passed significant tax increases to give their schools more money. Other communities in the state have never been successful in asking their voters for more local funding. Greeley’s District 6 had never passed a mill levy override until this November. District 27J in Brighton made the decision to go to a four-day week after voters turned them down for a 16th time.

How much do Colorado teachers make?

According to the Colorado Department of Education, the average teacher salary for 2017-18 is $52,708.

However, there’s considerable variation across the state and even within districts.

Teachers in the Cherry Creek and Boulder Valley districts have average salaries above $70,000. Many small rural districts have average salaries close to $30,000, an amount that’s hard to live on anywhere.

Colorado districts with the highest average teacher salaries

Source: Colorado Department of Education

Colorado districts with the lowest average teacher salaries

Source: Colorado Department of Education

The highest paid teacher in Aurora makes $102,115, and the highest paid teacher in Denver Public Schools makes $115,900. Those teachers would be veteran employees with decades in the classroom. Starting salaries in those districts are $39,757 and $41,689 respectively.

Starting salaries for new teachers and average salaries in 2017-18:

DISTRICT Starting salary Average salary
Denver $41,689 $50,757
Jeffco $38,760 $57,154
Dougco $37,160 $53,080
Cherry Creek $39,405 $71,711
Aurora $39,757 $54,742
Westminster $42,859 $58,976
Adams 14 $38,194 $57,394
Sheridan $35,029 $49,535
Deer Trail $33,660 $41,582

Teachers’ ability to get raises also varies considerably. Districts have salary schedules that provide for raises after a certain number of years of service or for getting more education, but in some districts, the range is narrow, with veteran teachers stuck close to $50,000.

Some districts, like Denver, also have performance incentives or offer additional money for working in schools where students have high needs.

Many teachers experienced pay freezes during the Great Recession but are starting to get raises again. However, when adjusted for inflation, teacher’s salaries have declined in many districts.

A look at teacher salary over time:

DISTRICT 2007-08 average pay 2017-18 average pay Percent change 2007-08 wage in 2018 dollars Percent change when adjusted for inflation
Denver Public Schools $47,197 $50,757 7.54% $57,794 -12.18%
Jeffco Public Schools $52,512 $57,154 8.84% $64,310 -11.13%
Dougco $52,078 $53,080 1.92% $63,771 -16.76%
Cherry Creek $57,152 $71,711 25.47% $69,985 2.47%
Aurora Public Schools $52,755 $54,742 3.77% $64,600 -15.26%
Westminster Public Schools $54,466 $58,976 8.28% $66,695 -11.57%
Adams 14 $46,679 $57,394 22.95% $57,160 0.41%
Sheridan $45,467 $49,535 8.95% $55,676 -11.03%
Deer Trail $36,654 $41,582 13.44% $44,884 -7.36%

 How does that compare to other states?

For many years, Colorado ranked in the bottom tier for teacher salaries, but the most recent ranking from the National Education Association put Colorado at No. 31. The rise in the rankings might reflect some districts giving raises after years of pay freezes as education funding slowly increases or as voters approve new local taxes.

Colorado teacher salaries are still well below the national average of $60,483.

And a recent report ranked Colorado dead last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries. The report compared how much teachers earn compared to other people who also had college degrees. The study adjusted for number of hours worked.

That is, teachers in Colorado take the biggest hit for choosing to go into education as opposed to some other profession.

What does PERA have to do with all this?

Colorado’s public employee retirement system, in which teachers participate, has an unfunded liability of somewhere between $32 billion and $50 billion. As lawmakers try to address this, various proposals have called on both employees and employers to pay more.

Retirement benefits, like health insurance, make up a growing share of school districts’ personnel budgets, so if they have to pay more into PERA, that’s less money for other education needs, including teacher pay.

And teachers who feel like their paychecks are already too small also don’t want to pay more.

Proposed solutions also call for reducing cost-of-living increases for retirees, raising the retirement age, and putting more of taxpayers’ dollars into the system.  

Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on the right balance, and whatever they decide will have implications for district budgets and teacher paychecks.

Teachers don’t get Social Security benefits, and many of them say that solid retirement benefits are an important part of compensation. They fear that a less generous package will make it even harder to hire and keep teachers.

What about the marijuana tax money?

The bulk of marijuana tax revenue for education goes to a program that helps schools pay for buildings and construction repairs. Districts apply and compete for grant money from the program, and in most cases have to put up some portion of the project’s cost. This money can’t be used for things like teacher salaries or books.

This year there’s bipartisan legislation to dramatically increase the amount of marijuana money that goes to fund this capital construction. Currently, only the first $40 million in marijuana tax revenue goes to the program. This change would set aside the first 90 percent of marijuana tax revenue for the construction grant program, up to $100 million.

Starting this year, 12.59 percent of marijuana tax revenue is also set aside for the regular education budget. That’s about $20 million a year at current rates.

Other marijuana money is set aside for various grant programs including one that schools can get to help pay for health professionals such as counselors or nurses. As the state collects more marijuana revenue, the amounts set aside for the grant programs has increased.

I'm just a bill

The debate is back: New York state leaders introduce bill to overhaul teacher evaluations

Ally Duncan, an elementary school teacher in Lake County, works with students on sentence structure. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Top New York lawmakers are pushing for an overhaul of the state’s controversial teacher evaluation system, which would eliminate the current law’s focus on rating teachers based on standardized tests.

A bill introduced in the Assembly on Thursday would prohibit the state from requiring districts to use grades 3-8 math and English test scores or Regents exams in teacher evaluations. Instead of championing one statewide evaluation system, the bill would allow local districts to craft their own teacher rating systems.

The bill would mark a dramatic about-face for New York on an issue that has galvanized protests, helped fuel one of the country’s largest testing boycott movements, and affects more than 70,000 teachers in New York City alone.

“The Assembly Majority has heard the concerns of New York’s educators and parents and we know that teachers’ performance and that of New York’s students may not be truly reflected in test scores,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in a statement. “Students learn in a variety of ways and this bill reflects that reality.”

The state’s teacher union has been pushing for immediate action on the teacher evaluation law all session, but lawmakers had so far been silent on the issue. Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic primary, came out in favor of immediately repealing the current teacher evaluation law earlier on Thursday, though lawmakers and union officials say they had been working on the bill long before her announcement.

The legislation has some important starpower behind it: It’s being sponsored by Heastie and Education Committee Chair Cathy Nolan. In Heastie’s statement about the bill, he noted that it comes after conversations with lawmakers, educators and the governor. A spokesman for Cuomo suggested that the governor is interested in tackling teacher evaluations this year but did not expressly support or oppose the bill. 

“We have been working the Legislature and education community for months to address this issue and would like to reach a resolution this session‎,” said Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi.

If Cuomo supports this or similar legislation, it would mark a major reversal for the governor, who led the charge to create a new teacher evaluation system in 2015 that allowed half of a teachers rating to be based on test scores. Since then, one in five families boycotted state tests in protest of a host of state educational policy changes, including teacher evaluations.

In the wake of the law’s passage, Cuomo appointed a task force to review the state learning standards, and members called for a pause on the use of test scores in teacher evaluations. The state’s Board of Regents soon passed a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English testing being used in teacher ratings until 2019.

But as the moratorium comes to an end, state officials have started to grapple with the lightning rod subject again. Members of the state’s education policymaking body favored a slow, deliberate process with teams of experts and educators.

The state’s teachers union, which has pushed for quicker action, expressed excitement about the bill.

“We thank Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Education Chairwoman Cathy Nolan for listening to parents and educators and introducing a bill that would ensure that students and teachers are once again valued as more than a test score,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta in a statement.

The head of New York City’s teachers union praised the measure and suggested that Nixon’s teacher evaluation comments earlier in the day were not driving support for the bill.

“We are happy to hear of any and all support for a measure to limit the problems of standardized tests.  But let the record be clear: we have been working with legislators and the executive branch for months to reform New York State’s obsession with and misuse of standardized tests,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “Ms. Nixon’s 11th hour public statement on the bill – while it may score political points – won’t help it get enacted.”