Merit Pay Fight, Politics Alter N.Y.C. Summer Program

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New York City's summer school program, a $170 million effort that had originally targeted up to 320,000 struggling students for academic aid this year, has become caught in a crossfire between some of the city's most powerful political forces and one of public education's most controversial issues.

The turmoil has centered on Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's plan to give cash bonuses to teachers who raise student achievement during the five-week summer program, and the opposition by the city teachers' union to singling out individual teachers for merit-based bonuses, which it views as divisive.

Earlier this month, interim Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy announced that the parties were at an impasse over the issue. And, for the district to be able to hire enough teachers to provide summer school, it would have to be scaled back.

Mr. Levy went on to announce that only students required to attend summer sessions because of low test scores or poor attendance would be included—a move that should reduce enrollment to about 250,000 of the district's 1.1 million students. That would reduce the need for teachers by some 2,000, to about 15,000.

"I am confident that there is still time to run a worthwhile summer program if we act forcefully now," Mr. Levy told the board of education April 3. He reported that teaching openings for summer school had been posted March 31, the same date summer applications were due last year.

Such tumult has eroded already-shaky confidence among many New Yorkers in the ability of the vast school system to run a successful program that requires low-performing students to attend summer classes if they are to be promoted to the next grade. Last August, it was revealed that thousands of students had been erroneously required to attend summer school because of a testing company's glitch in determining percentile rankings on a standardized exam.

"The system is just too big to do this so fast," said Sara Schwabacher, the acting president of New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit group in the city that promotes school improvement efforts. "You'll have the same problems this year," she predicted. "I don't see how you can't."

Converging Forces

It had appeared as though officials in New York City would have enough time to prepare for this year's largest-ever summer school program. It was last fall that the school board expanded the mandatory program from grades 3, 6, and 8 to grades K-12, beginning this summer. That change was projected to raise the number of students required to attend summer school from 35,000, to about 250,000.

A lot has happened since then, however. Schools Chancellor Rudolph F. Crew, who had championed the expansion as part of his effort to end the social promotion of students who aren't ready for the next grade, resigned in January amid a souring relationship with the mayor.

At the same time, Mr. Giuliani's as-yet-unofficial Republican campaign for the U.S. Senate geared up and his war of words with his prospective Democratic opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton, escalated.

Finally, the mayor and the teachers' union are in the early stages of renegotiating the contract, which expires Nov. 15.

The United Federation of Teachers, the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, is loath to give the mayor a foot in the door on merit pay. Instead, the union wants to raise salaries for teachers, and has seen the summer school debate as a good place to start. Meanwhile, its high-profile support of Mrs. Clinton has added to the tension.

Mr. Giuliani "knows there is a problem with the teacher shortage, and he doesn't want to deal with it," UFT President Randi Weingarten contended. "'Merit pay or nothing' is not a position that any executives in other jurisdictions have sustained. What he wants is to run for office."

Deputy Mayor Tony Coles last week defended the mayor's plan, which at one point would have rewarded teachers whose students showed the most improvement with bonuses of up to $4,000. The mayor "thinks it will attract the very best teachers," Mr. Coles said."When you offer incentive pay, the people likely to jump at it are the ones who have the most confidence in their abilities."

The union had accepted a compromise plan with Mr. Levy that would have given a $1,500 up-front bonus to certified teachers who worked this summer, along with a round-trip airline ticket to anywhere in the country to every teacher in the schools that improved student performance.

Mr. Giuliani called the plan a gimmick. "The mayor torpedoed that agreement," Ms. Weingarten said. "He made the issue not about attracting more summer school teachers, but about individual merit pay. That hasn't worked anywhere."

Left with little chance for a compromise, school officials this month pulled out all the stops to recruit enough teachers to fill the summer slots, while offering the currently negotiated salary of $33 per hour for up to 110 hours.

Employment notices have been sent to thousands of retired teachers, instructors on unpaid leaves of absence, and people with state teacher certification who are not teaching in the New York City schools.

Those targeted include state-certified teachers working in private and parochial schools.

'Draconian' Choice

Advertisements have been placed in 19 newspapers in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. "We are trying to fill each spot with a caring, committed teacher, not just anyone," said Howard S. Tames, the executive director of the division of human resources for the city's schools.

Bitterness is likely to linger over the thousands of students who would have volunteered for summer school, but who will be shut out under the revised program. "The kids who want to go and are just below grade level are the ones who most likely get the biggest impact from summer school," Ms. Schwabacher of New Visions said. "To choose between them and those who are mandated is Draconian."

Vol. 19, Issue 32, Page 5

Published in Print: April 19, 2000, as Merit Pay Fight, Politics Alter N.Y.C. Summer Program
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