N.Y.C. Gets Reprieve From Ban On Unlicensed Teaching

By Bess Keller — September 06, 2000 5 min read

Backing away from a legal showdown that neither side wanted, New York state has agreed to allow New York City’s worst-performing schools to open this week with some unlicensed teachers in exchange for a plan that would end the practice next year.

The agreement requires that the district assign only certified teachers to all regular classrooms in the city’s failing elementary schools by Sept. 7, the first day of school in the nation’s largest district. But it also gives the city schools another year to hire licensed teachers for other jobs in any of the 97 schools on the state’s roster of lowest-performing schools. That job list would include all positions in middle and high schools, as well as those in bilingual and special education classrooms at all levels.

The New York City schools ran this advertisement over the summer in several area newspapers.
--New York City Board of Education

Last week, district officials expected that they might have to resort to using numerous uncertified teachers to fill vacancies in the low-performing schools, which employ more than 6,000 teachers. The district used about 1,200 uncertified teachers last year, but many of them were hired after the school year began.

The deal called a truce in a legal battle that threatened to disrupt the start of school and open a rift between Richard P. Mills, the state’s education commissioner, and Harold O. Levy, the city’s schools chancellor.

Now on Track?

Both sides hailed the settlement, which was approved by a New York trial judge who was preparing to hear a lawsuit filed by Mr. Mills against the district, as a good start for further work to resolve the district’s problem.

“What this does is put the city on a track where they are going to resolve a problem of very long standing,” said Mr. Mills. “That’s dramatically different; in the past, there was a sense that nothing could be done.”

Mr. Levy said he was “most grateful” for the settlement, which he said would give the school system enough time to find teachers for the lowest-performing schools, called Schools Under Registration Review, or SURR schools.

“For us it was very satisfying because it restored the collaborative relationship we need with the state to succeed,” added Chad Vignola, the lawyer who represented Mr. Levy in two days of intense negotiations with state Supreme Court Justice Joseph F. Bruno, United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and state education officials.

The court, along with the state, will monitor the 1.1 million-student district’s compliance over the next two years.

The settlement includes a compromise on the sensitive issue of whether teachers would be assigned to SURR schools against their wishes. That question had been of particular concern to Ms. Weingarten and the UFT, the city affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

Under the court order, all certified teachers whom the district hired between Aug. 25 and the first day of school had to be assigned to fill any SURR school vacancies for which they were qualified.The union had fought any attempt to force teachers into particular schools, but the agreement leaves intact a contractual ban on forced transfers of veteran teachers. Ms. Weingarten praised the agreement, saying in a statement that “the vast majority of students in SURR schools will have the certified teachers the state requires [while] other schools will not have to lose their valued veteran teachers.”

Mr. Levy has said he, too, is opposed to making teachers go to SURR schools because it will drain off both new recruits and veterans that the city—faced with the worst teacher shortage in the state—can ill afford to lose.

The settlement follows a fight that began in July when Mr. Mills ordered the district to fill all vacancies at SURR schools with certified teachers and to replace all unlicensed teachers hired last year who had remained at those schools. A state policy— which Mr. Levy had supported in 1998 when he was a member of the state board of regents—banned the hiring of unlicensed teachers at SURR schools, starting last year.

At the time Mr. Mills filed suit, he said he had not gotten the promise he had sought from Mr. Levy to follow the new rules. He was angry, he said, that the city had hired some 600 uncertified teachers last year for the worst-performing schools, most of which are in impoverished neighborhoods.

Mr. Mills sued on Aug. 1, even after Mr. Levy had negotiated a plan with the teachers’ union and Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to lure teachers from Catholic and other private schools to the district’s schools by raising a longtime cap on starting salaries for experienced teachers new to the public school system. Under the deal, the maximum starting salary for experienced teachers rose from $39,000 annually to $48,000.

The move was one of a host of efforts launched during the past year, and stepped up over the summer, to find more certified teachers for SURR schools. The state kicked in extra help as well when the legislature last winter passed a $25 million package of recruitment and retention incentives, about $15 million of which are going to the city.

The district’s recent efforts to attract the needed teachers include more advertising and job fairs, recruiting trips, scholarships and loan-forgiveness programs, and a 15 percent salary increase for teachers transferring into SURR schools.

A pilot alternative certification program, approved by the state this summer, is expected to put some 300 new teachers in SURR classrooms this month. (“N.Y. Regents Open Door to Alternative Route to Teaching,” Aug. 2, 2000. ) More than 2,000 people applied for the training, which was advertised with a challenge to “do something about” poor achievement-test scores.

‘Herculean’ Effort

In court papers, the district argued that it was making a “Herculean” effort to comply with the order and blamed the state for failing to remedy the teacher shortages in areas such as mathematics and science, special education, and bilingual education. “You can’t get blood from a rock, and they are the ones who gave us the rock,” said Mr. Vignola.

City education officials also stressed that they were facing a much bigger problem around the corner, as state policy calls for a complete ban on unlicensed teachers in 2003.

But many experts say the state is right to push for the redistribution of the most qualified teachers—up to a point.

“You can’t do it with a shotgun,” which is why the city should resist wholesale transfer of teachers to needy schools, said Norm Fruchter, the director of the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University. He said the state should take more responsibility for attracting teachers while putting pressure on the district.

Mr. Fruchter said his research clearly shows that the poorer the area of the city, the fewer the qualifications possessed by the public school teachers, including certification.