The Public Policy

Money for Nothing

If students can be expelled, why not the teachers?

By 5.21.08

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Do public schools ever remind you of the movie Police Academy? In the film, the police are forced to accept all willing recruits because of a new policy instituted by the mayor. Anyone can join, and no one can be thrown out. A bunch of misfits show up, and the only way they can leave is if they quit. Think about it: a government institution full of delinquents who cannot be fired.

See the resemblance?

Unless they hold a student at gunpoint, public school teachers are also very hard to fire. They can, however, be encouraged to quit.

That's what D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is doing. She wants to replace the staff at 50 public schools facing either closure or academic overhaul, but her options are limited. She can't fire them, so she is encouraging them to leave by bribing them with money. Under her plan, as many as 700 teachers can receive bonuses ranging from $1,000 to $20,000 provided they leave the school system. However, only 289 teachers have applied. One teacher said she was "highly insulted" by Rhee's buyout offer, because it "infers [sic] that teachers are the problem." Be that as it may, the problems are still getting paid. All they have to do is go away.

Problems are worse in New York City, which is spending $81 million on hundreds of teachers who don't teach. Quite a bargain. Under a contract negotiated in 2005, teachers who are removed, or "excessed," from public schools are placed in the "Absent Teacher Reserve," which is sort of like the National Guard only with fewer guns. Under this arrangement, teachers are paid to show up at school and fill in as substitutes -- or not. No one knows for sure what they do. Meanwhile, they continue to collect full, taxpayer-funded salaries (some in the six figures) and benefits, even though some of them haven't had full-time jobs in as long as two years. These are teachers who, as a group, are six times more likely than other teachers to have received an "Unsatisfactory" rating in their careers. Not exactly cream of the crop.

Nevertheless, some are getting tenure, according to a new report by the New Teacher Project, "despite serving for relatively short periods as full-time classroom teachers." In other words, they are being rewarded with job security despite not having jobs. Many haven't even looked for jobs, and some have actually turned down job offers. It's hard to blame them. "I'm happy now," said one non-teaching teacher. "I don't have to prep, I don't have to grade tests, I don't have my own class. I don't really have to do anything."

Hundreds of other teachers are paid to do even less. The city spends another $65 million a year to prevent them from teaching, seeing that many of them face charges of incompetence and even crimes. Instead of teaching they sit in "rubber rooms," where they play cards, knit, practice ballet, fall asleep, and watch movies on portable DVD players. Evidently, this is what "investing in children's education" looks like. Better yet, they still receive full salaries, ranging from $42,500 to $93,400 a year, in addition to health benefits. David Pakter, a former "Teacher of the Year," used his $90,000 salary to buy a new Jaguar -- his reward for, as he put it, "doing absolutely nothing."

Why don't they fire them? Easy: They can't. Contractual rules set by the teachers' unions make it "just about impossible" to fire bad teachers, according to New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. In a national survey of teachers conducted by Education Sector, 55% say it is "very difficult and time-consuming to remove clearly ineffective teachers." Last year in New York City, for example, only ten out of 55,000 tenured teachers were fired for incompetence, which was up from previous years. One teacher was caught sending sexually explicit emails to his 16-year-old student. Yes, he was fired -- six years later and after the school paid him $350,000 in the interim. "We have had to pay him," said Klein, "because that's what's required under the contract."

HERE'S A THOUGHT experiment: What would happen if you left work, went to a strip club, and filled out an expense report saying you should be reimbursed $372 for what you claim was a "planning meeting"? Would your boss be pleased? No? Well, clearly you don't work in the D.C. public school system.

An audit conducted last fall of a D.C. after-school program revealed that two employees had taken more than $13,000 from the program's "student activity fund" to buy themselves two years' worth of lavish meals and cheap women. How did their boss react? She called them "extremely talented" and proceeded not to fire them. (She asked only that they pay back the $518 spent on alcohol.) Take that, fellas.

The problem with public education is that it is unaccountable to the public. Educators are a privileged class. They get to play the victim and the savior simultaneously. They do so much, they argue, and yet they are still underpaid and underappreciated.

Luckily for them, earlier this month was National Teacher Appreciation Week -- that special time of year when we are supposed to pay homage (and tax dollars) to those who have made our public schools the envy of the third world. It's one of those pseudo-holidays invented by teachers to remind everyone how indispensable they are. One flyer proclaimed: "They serve you every day because they love and care about you! (They're not doing it for the money!)"

Here's proof: In Fairfax, Virginia, budgetary limitations this year forced teachers to choose between a 3% salary increase and reducing class sizes. They went with the salary increase, presumably out of concern "for the children."

Teachers' unions have convinced the public that what's good for them is good for students. Bigger salaries for teachers? Yep, that's just what kids need. That and a week to appreciate teachers.

Students are, at least in theory, forced to repeat a grade if they fail. Yet teachers succeed even when they fail. Once you bring them in, it's tough to make them leave. If teachers were held to the same standards as students, some would be forced into unemployment or -- God forbid -- actual employment somewhere else.

According to teachers, it's a tragedy whenever teachers are displaced for any reason. "They need to know they have jobs," said Candi Peterson, a member of the Washington Teachers' Union. "There's no need to be forced out, unless they want to leave." It is accepted wisdom that teachers should be "guaranteed" jobs, along with constant across-the-board salary increases. Anything less is tantamount to child abuse.

UNIONIZED TEACHERS complain as if it were their job, and I sometimes suspect it is. But they don't have it that bad. The average teacher works 190 days a year. In New York City, a teacher's workday is 6 hours and 50 minutes on the dot, as required by law. (According to Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, this "is what normally happens in the private sector.") Plus, you can be inept and still make a living. If we are willing to pay bad teachers to teach, why not pay them to stop?

A few years ago Virgin Records paid Mariah Carey $28 million to end her contract -- that is, $28,000,000.00 not to sing, not even "Emotions" or "I'll Be There." They found her voice so dreadful that not hearing it was, in their judgment, worth 28 million smackers. There's a lesson here for teachers: If you are bad enough, unemployment can be a lucrative line of work. In many public schools, the way to succeed is to fail really badly.

Not all teachers are bad, of course. Some are adequate. But the problem with good teachers is that they are not rewarded for being good -- they are rewarded for getting old. Seniority, not skill, is what matters when salaries are allotted. The longer you're there, the more you make. "People get paid the same," explained Joel Klein, "whether they're outstanding, average or way below average." Merit is as irrelevant in public schools as it is in Police Academy. There is, however, one crucial difference: One is a slapstick comedy, and one only deserves to be.

Education is too important to be left to teachers. As costly as it is to keep them around, paying them to leave is a no-brainer.

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About the Author

Windsor Mann is a writer living in Washington, D.C., and the editor of The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism.