Send in the Reserves!

When the city and the United Federation of Teachers agreed on a new contract in 2005, the city agreed to establish a reserve pool of teachers whose jobs had been eliminated and who were unable to find work in another school. In the past, teachers with seniority were given first dibs on job vacancies, but the new contract ended that practice.

According to a report compiled by a teacher-training group called the New Teacher Project, the city will spend $81 million over two years to pay salaries and benefits for teachers in the reserve pool. The teachers show up for work at a school every day, but they don’t have classroom jobs. This scenario was not unexpected; Schools Chancellor Joel Klein supported the notion of a reserve pool of teachers because he did not wish to force teachers on individual principals. It was the price the city agreed to pay in exchange for the elimination of seniority hiring and transfer rights.

It’s clear, however, that the reserve pool has become an expensive boondoggle. Some 600 teachers, of the approximately 2,700 whose jobs were eliminated since 2006, were put into the reserve pool. They say that they have been unable to find other jobs in the massive city school system, but the report by the New Teacher Project found that about half of the reserves had not applied to job vacancies posted online. This is outrageous. It’s clear that while there are surely many talented teachers who are only in the reserve pool because of school closings, there are others who are making little or no effort to find new positions, either because they are not motivated to do so, or because they lack the skills to be hired on their own merits.

Not unexpectedly, the UFT’s president, Randi Weingarten, called the report “repulsive.” The overheated reaction suggests not that the report was flawed, but that the union is angry that somebody noticed that a few hundred teachers are drawing salaries and benefits without actually having to teach. Ms. Weingarten also assailed the report’s authors, claiming that the New Teacher Project is in the pocket of the Department of Education. (The Project, a national organization, received a $4 million contract from the department to train teachers.) Ms. Weingarten has chosen to attack the messenger rather than the message, the preferred strategy of those who have no other line of defense.

What’s astonishing is that the reserve corps apparently has not been tapped to help fill daily gaps in the classroom when teachers call in sick. Principals can, if they choose, use a reserve rather than call on a substitute to fill in for an ill or absent teacher. But they are not obliged to do so. Why not? Why not demand that principals utilize the reserve pool as their substitute teachers of first resort? It makes complete sense, which may explain why the practice has yet to be mandated.

If taxpayers are going to pay $81 million to support the reserve corps, they should get some service for that money. Surely the reserves will be delighted to find themselves in classrooms rather than hanging around the teachers’ room, waiting for a job offer. And if they’re not, they have no right to be on the city payroll.