I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, June 23, 2014

Who Gets the Shaft When Schools Are Underfunded? Ask Paterson's Teachers

Paterson is one of the most impoverished cities in New Jersey. In my last post for NJ Spotlight, I gave some detail about how so many of city's children suffer under crushing poverty:

According to U.S. Census Bureau data for 2012, nearly 40 percent of Paterson’s children live in poverty. Unemployment is about 15 percent, nearly double the statewide average. Paterson also has the eighth-highest violent crime rate in the state, just behind Newark.

NJ Department of Education data shows that 91 percent of School No. 4’s (also known as Napier Academy) students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; even for Paterson, that’s very high. Over 15 percent of Napier’s students are classified for special education services, and 9 percent are Limited English Proficient.
Given all of these disadvantages -- and given the regular intoning from the Christie administration and education “reformers” about the importance of education in combating poverty -- you’d think Paterson would be the recipient of all sorts of state aid to help its education system.
But the Silk City’s schools, like all the other former Abbott districts, have taken a hit in these past few years. According to the Education Law Center, Paterson’s schools have been underfunded by over $100 million dollars over the past five years, compared to what they should be getting under the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA).
According to ELC, this past year alone the amount of underfunding in Paterson is over $51 million on a budget of about $570 million. That's a gap of about $1,900 per pupil. Which means the district doesn't have the money to address some of its most basic needs.


Yes, friends, that is indeed rodent excrement alongside student workbooks. This is one of the photos from the brilliant exhibit “A Blind Eye: The Immorality Of Inaction," which documents the dangerous and disgusting conditions in New Jersey's urban schools.

This particular photo comes from Paterson's School No. 20, which has a Free and Reduced-Price Lunch (FRPL) eligibility rate of 85%, a Limited English Proficient (LEP) rate over 7%, and a Special Education (SpecEd) classification rate of 23%.

Here's School No. 20's food preparation room.


Let's be clear: the people who suffer the most from this illegal neglect are Paterson's beautiful, deserving children. But who else pays the price?

Their teachers.

These are the working conditions for Paterson's college-educated professionals. Not only do teachers have to deal with rodents and exposed wiring; they have to wrestle with the chronic poverty and its attendant social ills their students bring through the classroom doors every day.

I keep hearing a lot of crowing from the reformy-types about how the Vergara decision -- which struck down California's tenure laws as unconstitutional -- is a big win for students, because it will get rid of the alleged hordes of allegedly "bad" teachers that allegedly dominate the faculties of schools like those in Paterson. I'll leave aside the fact no one has ever proved that the teaching corps, as a whole, can be improved simply by gutting tenure and seniority, and ask a more basic question:

Does it ever occur to these reformy folks that if we really believe teachers are important -- especially in urban schools with many economically disadvantaged students -- we should give them great working conditions and decent, middle-class pay?

Paterson remains a state-controlled district, which it has been for over two decades. There have been some noises made in Trenton about returning partial control to the district, but the state still makes all of the important decisions. But this is the same state that allows sickening learning and working environments like those at School No. 20.

And it's the same state that allowed Paterson's dedicated teachers, laboring in impossible conditions, to work without a contract for four long years -- that is, until last May, when the state and the teachers union reached a tentative agreement. But keep in mind: the state that brokered the deal continues to underfund the district, and allows the working conditions to remain atrocious.

Which means that the deal -- the details of which are just coming out -- doesn't give Paterson's teachers what they have earned, let alone what they really deserve:
The city’s teachers union has postponed Monday’s ratification vote on a proposed labor contract that has become the target of widespread opposition among members. 
An email that union leadership sent to members said Paterson Education Association (PEA) members met for more than four hours on Thursday to discuss the proposal. “It became easily evident that the hundreds of people who came out were strongly opposed to the proposed settlement,” said the union email. 
In particular, union leaders and members say the proposed contract does not provide for increases in the base pay set by the salary guide and that it would eliminate some steps on the guide. [emphasis mine]
A little background for those of you not hip to teacher contracts: teacher salaries are based on a "step guide," which allows for a pay raise for each step, or year, of service. When you go from year 5 to year 6 in a district, you "move up on the guide." (The "top of the guide" is the highest step: it could range anywhere from 15 to 30 years.)

But guides also change year-to-year. So step 5 this year pays more than step 5 last year, and step 5 next year will pay even more. Also, teachers can move "horizontally" on the guide: more pay for acquiring an advanced degree.

When you are working without a contract, the assumption is that you will get "retro" pay: there will be guides put in place for the years you already worked, and you will move retroactively up steps and horizontally if you've earned a degree.

Well, someone sent me a copy of the proposal. And as you can imagine, considering the gross underfunding of the district, the news is not good for Paterson's teachers. There is no retro pay for 2010-11, and steps are "frozen" in other years for teachers without advanced degrees. There is some compensation to make up for that, but it's small. The new "universal" guide seriously degrades the value of an advanced degree.

Needless to say, some of the teachers in Paterson are upset:
They also say the proposal undermines the practice of providing extra money to teachers who obtain advanced academic degrees and that the retroactive pay provided under the deal is less than what union members would have gotten if the old contract had remained in place. 
The tentative settlement had been reached in May after city teachers had worked almost four years without a new contract. 
Let me say here what I said consistently about the Newark teachers contract when that was being ratified back in 2012: it is not my place to tell Paterson's teachers to accept or reject this contract. Only the members of the PEA can make that decision, and I would never fault them for going one way or the other.

Further: I never have a problem when union leadership brings a deal to its members. Unions are democratic institutions and leaders should take their cues from members. I've never met PEA President Peter Tirri, but I know he's spent years working on behalf of Paterson's teachers. If he thinks this is the best deal he can get, I am more than willing to take his word on that.

On the other hand, if the rank-and-file want to stick it out, they should be able to vote to do just that. Debate is one of the great traditions of unionism, and it should be encouraged and allowed to occur in an environment of respect.

So I'm not going to make a case for or against this particular contract. My point here is larger, and it's something anyone who cares about public education needs to think about hard:

One of the primary reasons New Jersey has provided more money to school districts with many at-risk students is to attract the best talent possible into the most difficult teaching situations. If, as the reformyists claim, teaching is so important, we need to create working conditions for teachers that will recruit and retain the people we need in the profession.

But when you consistently underfund a school district, you all but guarantee that teachers will be underpaid: this is exactly what is happening right now in Paterson. What are the consequences?

Some of Paterson's teachers will stay. Teachers, as a rule, tend to be a loyal lot, and often form personal attachments to their districts, their schools, and their students. They could do other things, but they won't.

But some -- perhaps many -- of Paterson's teachers will move on. Some will move out to suburban districts, where the working conditions are better. Some will leave the profession; many would have been talented teachers, but they also want decent middle-class lives for themselves and their families. They will give up teaching not because they don't love the job, but because they love their own families more.

When those teachers go, what then? An endless cycle of young, inexperienced teachers, staying a few years then moving on the moment anything better pops up? Is that what Paterson's kids need? What they deserve?

You can't keep degrading pay and work conditions and expect the best teachers to stay in the profession. If you truly believe teachers are important, you need to show them that by paying them professional salaries and giving them professional working conditions -- particularly in the toughest teaching assignments.

New Jersey hasn't learned this basic rule of economics yet: whether this contract is voted up or down, it's clearly far less than Paterson's teachers deserve. Once again, it will be the students who pay the price for this neglect.


ADDING: Just rereading the contract. Two steps up for a "highly effective" rating? Given the way Operation Hindenburg has structured teacher evaluations, that sounds like a compensation scheme that would be very easy to game.

Stand by...

1 comment:

Jessie said...

Here is the view of one Paterson teacher's wife: http://jessieathome.com/a-letter-to-the-teachers-of-paterson-nj-and-their-board-of-ed-and-their-union

And the delay on the vote is utter BS. They are not going to change the contract, and no amount of explaining will give us our steps, so what is the point of the delay?