Mixed Grades for New Teachers’ Contract

Mayor de Blasio and the New York City teacher’s union president, Michael Mulgrew, were all smiles and back-slaps last week during the announcement of a new nine-year contract between the union and the city.

Was it also an occasion for New Yorkers, who will be paying out the contract, to smile?

Yes and no.

The contract takes a step in the right direction in that it rewards outstanding teachers by granting them a bonus of up to $20,000 a year. Incentives work, and they work well. In private industry, cash incentives work to spur employees to achieve higher productivity and to be the best at what they do. Merit pay and bonuses drive Wall Street bankers to work long hours and to create a meritocracy that rewards hard work and results. Economic incentives to individuals for doing an outstanding job makes great companies produce superior products and services.

Great New York City teachers deserve that same opportunity to excel in their craft and to be rewarded for devising and using creative strategies in the classroom. Until now, the best New York City teachers were lumped together with those who underperform or were mediocre, with all receiving the same salary and benefits. It must be discouraging for a motivated teacher to see no reward for the long hours of extra effort spent outside the classroom, preparing lessons. An environment of competition in which teachers vie for a bonus will goad many to break out of the cocoon of mediocrity.

Another incentive in the contract will give some schools a badly needed boost: a $5,000 bonus for teachers who work in under-performing schools. That extra money may sway some good teachers not to seek refuge in schools with high graduation rates, luring them instead to the schools that need them most. Bad teachers in bad schools will only attract more of the same, while an influx of qualified teachers would raise the standards in these failing institutions.

In another victory for New Yorkers, the contract permits 200 schools to operate outside the United Federation of Teachers’ sometimes stifling rules. For too long, the UFT has strangled the school system with regulations that protect teachers at the expense of students. The union enacted rules that were entirely inimical to educating students. Under union rules, seniority, not teaching effectiveness, was the criterion for teaching assignments.

Where the contract should possibly induce frowns is the price tag this contract will impose on New Yorkers. At first glance, the contract appears to give only modest salary increases during the next nine years, for a total of 18 percent, and seems like a reasonable and affordable pay hike to those who commit themselves to working in the classroom; however, that is not the whole story. Teachers will also receive a retroactive 4 percent increase for both 2009 and 2010, and an additional $1000 signing bonus.

The 18 percent increase over nine years may seem modest, but the mayor and union neglected to mention that New York City teachers receive additional raises that are not in the contract, but based on seniority, known as “step raises.” For example, even though teachers had no contract in the years 2009 through 2012, total teacher compensation went up 11.7 percent, according to the NYC Office of Management and Budget. The average teacher compensation, including benefits and salary, jumped from $109,921 to $122,868 — that increase was without any contractual raise.

The retroactive pay increase will cost New Yorkers some $3.4 billion. The mayor’s concession to make payments that the city is not contractually obligated to pay may seem to many like a political move, an attempt to court the union vote rather than consider how this will ultimately affect the city’s budget. Paying teachers extra for work that was already done and paid for is unheard of in the private sector. After all, the teachers can’t quit retroactively, so what was the city’s incentive to make this payout?

This agreement will also set a precedent for other unions that don’t have a contract. Can the city afford such generous retroactive pay increases and future raises, coupled with existing huge pension payouts? Already, pensions being collected by retired police and fire department personnel astoundingly exceed the cost of salaries being paid to those currently in uniform.

More important than the written contract is the unwritten contract, the obligation of teachers — and politicians —to provide NYC students with the best education possible. For too long, our schools have failed our students. The high-school graduation rate has been an abysmal 65 percent, and even among the graduates, most are woefully unprepared for college. Smiles and back-slaps should be reserved for when New York City’s students receive the world-class education they deserve.