One hundred fifty thousand New York City children do not have certified teachers because of a severe and mounting teacher shortage in the city.
The question is, is New York City losing its best teachers to high-paying suburban districts?
That's the question the United Federation of Teachers hopes to keep before the public this fall as negotiators for the union and the New York City Board of Education meet to hammer out the first new teachers' contract in five years. The current contract expires November 15. Negotiations started at the beginning of September.
The New York State Department of Education shows teacher salaries outside the city outstripping city salaries by wide margins. For example, in Senate candidate Hillary Clinton's home town, Chappaqua, the median teacher salary is $75,190, compared to $47,345 in New York City. And it's not just posh districts that pay more. The median salary in Yonkers is $67,291. In Mt. Vernon, it's $67,900.
Starting salaries all over the region dwarf New York City salaries, too. A first year teacher in Yonkers earns $40,000. New York City pays $31,900.
The stakes for New York City children in the outcome of the teacher talks are unusually high this time around. Some of the most serious teacher shortages, in secondary school math and science, are in areas where kids need instruction the most. Starting in June 2003, graduating seniors will be denied high school diplomas unless they pass rigorous regents exams in five subjects, including math and science.
Mayor Giuliani has already conceded that the city needs to raise teacher pay. But he wants raises tied to teacher performance, something the union adamantly opposes. Merit pay systems differ around the country, with some rewarding individual teachers for improvements in their students' test scores, and others giving raises to entire schools when scores go up. No one from the mayor's office is saying which of these Giuliani favors.
Both the mayor and Schools Chancellor Harold Levy also want major concessions from the teachers on seniority rules. Levy has said he won't leave the negotiating table until principals possess the authority to reassign and discipline incompetent teachers. "Right now, managers do not believe or have faith in the system to get rid of unable teachers," Levy said as contract talks started.
Both Levy and Giuliani understand the significance of the pay gap between city and suburban teachers, though, and with Wall Street booming, teachers are not likely to let the two men forget it.
"The city has the money," said Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers. "There are no excuses this year."
Peggy J. Farber is freelance journalist specializing in children's issues. Her reporting on conditions of NYC children has appeared in City Limits Magazine as well as on National Public Radio.