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Citizens Union


The Teachers' Contract

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.

Board of Education Hosts Student Performers

In The News: (may '00)

The Board of Education hardly springs to mind when one thinks of New York City cultural institutions. But every Monday for one idyllic hour this most embattled of NY bureaucracies is transformed into the city's newest -- if most unusual -- performance venue. Since March dozens of student singers, poets, actors, dancers, and musicians -- all culled from NYC public schools -- have appeared through a new program, Arts Mondays.

This initiative is the brainchild of Harold O. Levy, currently interim schools chancellor but said to have the inside track on a permanent appointment. According to Levy, Arts Mondays "are a terrific celebration of the children of the public schools of New York City, the world capital of the arts."

While this program is designed to showcase talented students, it is also a way to motivate administrators in a very direct, personal way. Those who work at the Board of Education have few opportunities to interact with students -- their raison d'etre. Similarly, students are not a common sight at Livingston Street.

Executive Assistant to the Chancellor Jonathan Levi explained. "When we see the discipline and passion of the young performers in front of us, we marvel at their commitment and renew our own. Arts Mondays are about crystallizing for ourselves the importance of the arts in our students' educations."

In the last three years, arts education programs in City schools have grown prodigiously, thanks to Project Arts and the Center for Arts Education. Each year arts education funding has increased until now, for the 1999-2000 school year, Levy reports that "every one of the 1,100 schools in the system has a program dedicated to the arts."

Thus far Arts Mondays have presented a generous sampling of students' artistic passions. These include jazz from Bayside High School teenagers, aspiring poets from Stuyvesant High School, a musical theatre showcase and poetry recitation by, respectively, Brooklyn and Bronx elementary students and, not least, opera. This last is a known favorite of the Mayor, although he has not yet been sighted in the lunchtime crowd. No matter, the audiences for Arts Mondays are probably better off without Giuliani right in their midst, especially if there are any more programs like the very first waiting in the wings: That's when students from Talent Unlimited High School sang selections from "Working," the musical based upon a book by that famously pro-union octogenarian Studs Terkel.

Arts Mondays performances will continue at the Board of Education through the school year.

Rhonda Sounds Off:

The culture wars haven't been going so well for the Mayor lately. First there was the Brooklyn Museum mess and the City's ultimate capitulation. Then that German artist used him over at the Whitney in a most unflattering way. Now even his own home is no sanctuary.

Donna Hanover, the Mayor's wife, is about to take a turn in "The Vagina Monologues." This extraordinary feminist play by Eve Ensler celebrates women, and like the title says, their vaginas -- as well as many other parts, including hearts and minds. (I saw it a few years ago and believed then, as now, that everyone should see it, regardless of the player.)

But Ms. Hanover's most recent foray into thespianism is hardly the kind of vote-getting strategy a Republican senatorial candidate might choose for his spouse. Still, one explanation might be that this simply illustrates what a truly liberated 21st century kind of guy Donna married -- one who would never even dream of limiting her activities. Here's another theory: familiarity breeds contempt. In this case though it may well breed more, or at least more effective contempt than can be mustered by even the Mayor's less personal critics. Let's hear it for family values.

Rhonda Zangwill is a writer, editor and teacher in New York City. She does not claim to be a critic, but she knows what she likes. She has been published in various special interest and trade journals, even some that are still in existence.

Marisol Update: Prospects are Grim

In its most recent report, released March 10, a panel of national experts painted a grim picture of front line social work practice in New York City's foster care system, and warned that if the Administration for Children's Services does not raise its practice standards for field workers, impressive system reforms achieved under Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta will have "little lasting benefit."

The report is the work of the Special Child Welfare Advisory Panel, established as part of a settlement of the massive federal lawsuit against the child welfare agency, Marisol v. Giuliani, brought by Children's Rights, Inc.

Based on visits to ACS sites and private contract agencies, as well as case record reviews, interviews, and a survey of 61 private agencies, the panel confirmed what the system's harshest critics have repeatedly said:

  • Many front line workers fail to form an adequate picture of a family's strengths and weaknesses, and "often need a good deal of guidance in understanding why people behave as they do."
  • Parents, children and foster families regularly have to resort to outside resources such as children's law guardians to get information that should be forthcoming from caseworkers.
  • Caseworkers mechanically refer families to unnecessary parenting classes and treatment programs, and fail to help them with needed services such as housing subsidies.
  • Visits between foster children and their biological families are routinely restricted to the minimum required by law, that is, one hour every other week, for no reason other than a system-wide misunderstanding of state law.

"This is a critical moment in the history of New York City's child welfare system," noted Douglas Nelson, head of the special panel and president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore. "Unless ACS commits itself to a new phase of reform that is focused on practice, its accomplishments will have little lasting value."

The panel also delivered harsh criticism of the City's family courts, where all child welfare cases are adjudicated. Citing pervasive delays, overwhelming caseloads, and inadequate legal representation for biological parents, the report stated that the judicial system is "frighteningly close to abdicating the court's basic responsibility to protect the rights of children and families."

Farber Sounds Off:

The Special Child Welfare Advisory Panel report is a must-read for New York City residents who care about children. It is the frankest assessment the Special Advisory panel has released. It's also the most comprehensive, based on dozens of field visits, case record reviews, a survey of 61 agencies, interviews and several focus groups.

We've built a child welfare system in New York that, in effect, does one thing -- remove children from their families when there are signs of serious trouble. The unpleasant truth is that in the current system, it really makes no difference whether front line child welfare workers are any good at helping families because despite the rhetoric, it is not the goal. They're good enough at getting children out of one household and into another, and that's really all we ask of them.

It's not clear how much influence the report's authors wield. Under the terms of the settlement in Marisol v. Giuliani, the panelists are advisors only; their recommendations are just that -- recommendations. If at the end of this year the panelists conclude that ACS has not followed their recommendations in good faith, lawyers for foster children who brought the suit can resume litigation.

Scoppetta has shown real strength in initiating and implementing the ACS Reform Plan, which has revamped the way the system evaluates agencies and rewards contracts. However, unless this work is followed by a major effort to convince front line workers that their mission goes beyond removing children to treating whole families, the system will never see first rate casework practice.

For a copy of the full report, ready for download, go to the Annie E. Casey Foundation link below and follow the links to the New York Special Child Welfare Advisory Panel.

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.

School Vouchers


After condemning the NYC public schools last April as a system that "should be blown up," Mayor Giuliani included $12 million in his budget for school vouchers. His school choice proposal sparked a nasty political battle with Chancellor Crew. The debate over vouchers continues. Advocates say that the current system is incapable of teaching kids, and that innovation is necessary. They cite other cities, like Milwaukee, where students in voucher schools have improved markedly, especially inner city kids. Naysayers foresee the death of public education. They fear that vouchers will lure students and funds out of the public school system. Taxpayer monies, they assert, should not be used to send students to private schools - especially not parochial ones. This objection was raised in Milwaukee, where an experimental voucher program sends 8,000 students to private schools; the US Supreme Court has allowed the program to continue. In New York, vouchers will be a hot early issue for the next Chancellor.


"The School That Vouchers Built" - Sol Stern's vehemently pro-vouchers piece tells the success stories of four private schools in Milwaukee and Cleveland that accept voucher students. His report card: "straight A." Vouchers are the answers.

State of the City Address - The speech in which Mayor Giuliani first proposed the experimental use of vouchers in NYC schools, the impetus of an extended political battle between Mayor and Chancellor.

"I oftentimes want to go the map and cut out Milwaukee. You're causing me pure hell in New York." - Chancellor Crew at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.


Emergency Campaign Against Vouchers - The United Federation of Teachers and its 140,000 members are solidly opposed to vouchers. Their largest objection is that students with vouchers may not be accepted to the school of their choice, or to any school at all. They maintain that reduction in class size will produce greater improvements in student achievement.

"My School Reforms Make a Difference" - Then-Chancellor Rudy Crew's op-ed in the Daily News about how reform is turning around the NYC public school system, and why vouchers are not a viable solution.


An Evaluation of the New York City School Choice Scholarships Program: The First Year - Details the findings of an experiment conducted about the implementation of school choice through the use of vouchers. Findings are mixed: Children in voucher schools did only slightly better on standardized tests than their public school counterparts. Their parents reported being more content with their child's education. Seventy-five percent of families offered scholarships used them; they were of higher income-levels than those who did not. This study provides some interesting insights into the realities of vouchers.

Education Week - A thorough treatment of a variety of issues, including vouchers. A good primer on the issues and politics of vouchers, with extensive links to related articles and sites.

School Choice 1999: What's Happening in the States - Web version of the Heritage Foundation annual publication. A comprehensive site with coverage of the status and history of vouchers in NYS.

Children's Scholarship Fund - Since June1998, the Children's Scholarship Fund has over 40,000 scholarships providing up to 75% of a child's private or parochial school tuition.


State of the State

Governor George E. Pataki surprised New York City schools advocates with a series of education proposals in his January 2000 State of the State address aimed at expanding the State's public school teaching force. The measures put education at the center of his annual address for the first time in the five years he's been in office. New initiatives include college scholarships for 5,000 undergraduates a year who pledge to teach in designated areas, and $2,000 for teachers with temporary licenses to help them achieve permanent certification. Citing famous New Yorkers Colin Powell and Billy Joel, who, theoretically, are barred from teaching under current certification rules, the Governor also proposed creating an alternate credentialing route for people who have established themselves in other fields.

Public school advocates reacted with a mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism. Jill Chaifetz, director of Advocates for Children, said, "We think these are terrific ideas. The only thing is, just a year ago the governor vetoed a slew of proposals just like these." State Assemblyman Steven Sanders, Democrat of Manhattan, chair of the Education Committee, said, "This is the same Governor who vetoed out of existence a teacher mentoring program that had been in the budget for years. So I can't help but be a little bit skeptical of his sincerity. Maybe the latest poll results influenced him but whatever the reason, I'm pleased."

Farber Sounds Off:

The New York City public school system has a huge staffing problem ahead. Of the 75,000 teachers currently in the system, 50,000 will become eligible for retirement within the next few years. In other words, the governor's initiatives, if they are funded fully, a big if -- don't go far enough. Jill Chaifetz, director of Advocates for Children, says, "There was this huge influx of teachers sort of as part of the baby boom and now they're all hitting retirement age. The Governor's proposal is so much better than what we have now. But 5000 is only beginning to touch the shortage." Governor Pataki and the legislature are going to have to work together a lot harder to expand New York City's teaching staff, or City kids will never meet the state's tough, welcome, new academic standards.

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.

Better Late Than Never

New York State's budget, finally passed in early August. It includes new desperately-needed statewide funding for day care for poor working families, adding $162 million dollars to the $460 million child care budget. This should translate into about 50,000 new day care slots across the state. Supply may not meet demand in NYC, though, where 40,000 children are already on the waiting list for subsidized day care. The City's low-cost day care program currently accommodates 66,000 kids. Advocates expect the waiting list to balloon as deadlines for ending parents' welfare benefits approach.

Farber Sounds Off:

Watch out in the coming months for the early effects of the new federal Adoption and Safe Families Act. The law reflects the good intentions of US legislators but it may wreak havoc with NYC families caught up in the child welfare system. The law requires states to terminate parental rights of those parents whose children have been in foster care longer than 15 months. Roughly 40,000 children are in foster care in NYC. On average they stay for over four years, in part because Family Court is so overwhelmed it can't move any faster. Turning these kids into orphans is a risky public policy.

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.

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