Local Charter School Fisticuffs: How About Collaborating Instead?

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Mark Weber, aka Jersey Jazzman, just published a lengthy series of posts about charter schools in Hoboken, with a particular focus on Elysian Charter School, which serves 288 public school students in grades K-8. In his post he personally attacks Elysian’s Business Administrator Kathy Mone for a long list of offenses, including discriminating against older teachers and teachers with spouses in order to save on health insurance costs, as well as  her efforts to find efficiencies in a political environment that short-changes the state’s charter schools.

I’m not interested in correcting Weber’s multiple errors. (Kathy did some of that  on her own). It’s more productive, for both charter school advocates and opponents, to look at how Elysian, with far fewer resources than Hoboken traditional public schools/ ($13K per student per year at Elysian, or 60% of what it’s supposed to get, compared to HPS’s  $22,199 per student per year) finds economies without diminishment of student learning quality and time.

After all, according to union leaders, charter schools are supposed to serve as “laboratories of innovation.” Instead of dissing the school for fulfilling its mandate for piloting new ideas, isn’t it more productive to examine how any responsible administrator, charged with doing “more with less,” makes it work?  Surely we should all eschew ad hominem attacks and focus instead on innovations that can be transferred to NJ’s traditional schools and benefit teachers and schoolchildren.

Recently there’s been a slew of articles about the detrimental impact  on students, teachers,, and schools from our allegiance to lockstep salary guides and back-loaded compensation systems.  Yesterday I looked at one of these studies, courtesy of two professors at Georgetown University, on how pension systems suffer by holding back significant raises until the end of a teacher’s career in the classroom. Another article just out from “National Affairs” considers how the many years required for teachers to be invested in pension systems cheats them out of adequate retirement funds. Here’s a short excerpt:

Today’s backloaded pension systems are therefore not unfair to taxpayers, but they are unfair and highly inequitable for teachers. Taxpayers aren’t paying the full cost of the substantial retirement benefits offered to those who retire “on time” under today’s teacher pensions systems — it is often younger teachers, whose own retirements are being shortchanged, who are footing the bill. Very few teachers entering classrooms today will actually receive the gold-plated pension benefits often discussed in the press. Those who operate today’s teacher-pension systems not only know this, they count on it to keep costs down…

Economists Robert Costrell and Michael Podgursky have referred to this as the “golden handcuffs” argument: After a teacher has been in the classroom long enough that he is approaching the steep accrual rate on the pension curve, he would be crazy to leave because he would be leaving a great deal of money on the table. Thus, the current system creates a strong incentive for experienced teachers to stay. 

But there are at least two major problems with this justification. First, and this should not be overlooked, is the moral problem of using teachers’ primary, and potentially only, pension plan as a retention program. Essentially, this involves holding teachers hostage in the classroom by threatening them with an insecure retirement if they were to leave. Teachers don’t deserve such treatment. They should be justly compensated for their work each year. And their primary retirement plans should place all teachers on the path to retirement security, regardless of tenure or when they were hired. 

Second, there is no particular reason to believe that students benefit from such extreme measures being used to retain experienced teachers. A wide body of empirical research finds that novice teachers are, on average, much less effective than their more experienced colleagues. However, this research also demonstrates that the returns to experience on teacher quality plateau after about three to five years in the classroom. Thus, there is no particular reason to believe that a given 30-year veteran teacher is going to be better than a 20-year veteran teacher, who would be better than a 10-year veteran teacher. A pension system designed to retain teachers all the way until retirement age is not likely to improve teacher quality overall. 

The backloaded retirement system is a blunt policy instrument that encourages all teachers, whether they are great or terrible in the classroom, to stick around until retirement eligibility. And once they become retirement eligible, the system incentivizes all teachers to leave, again regardless of their effectiveness in the classroom. There is no particular reason to believe, then, that the backloaded nature of the current retirement system is in fact helping retain the teachers we want to retain.

Ms. Mone has helpfully itemized different ways to protect student programming while cutting some central office tasks. You don’t have to agree with all her suggestions, but they deserve a fair airing, not a hatchet job.

One other point. Somewhere within Mr. Weber’s blogpost he writes that  “Elysian secretly hires only unmarried teachers to reduce the school’s share of health benefits. There’s a perception that it’s illegal to ask a potential employee if she is married, but the truth is that, as a practical matter, potential employers can and do ask all the time. I think it’s safe to say Mone is telling her fellow charter school SBAs to go ahead and ask and, if all things are equal, hire the married teacher — just as long as she’s married to the “right” sort of husband,” i.e., one with his one health benefits package.”

This is just plain wrong and, with all due respect, such an accusation requires some fact-checking. So I did it. Here’s Kathy Mone:

There was never any recommendation to hire single teachers, 87% of Elysian teachers are married.  In fact, Elysian now no longer offers subsidized health care plans to teacher spouses at all, so whether a teacher is married or single does not impact expenditures. 

Correction:  In an email exchange Mr. Weber pointed out, correctly, that I mistakenly paraphrased the first part of his comments. I put in quotation marks, “Elysian secretly hires only unmarried teachers to reduce the school’s share of health benefits.” Those were my words, not his, and I apologize for this error. Mr. Weber continues, in his own words,

Understand what this slide is saying: charter schools should be wary of having their staffs get married, because that will jack up benefit costs!
There’s a perception that it’s illegal to ask a potential employee if she is married, but the truth is that, as a practical matter, potential employers can and do ask all the time. I think it’s safe to say Mone is telling her fellow charter school SBAs to go ahead and ask and, if all things are equal, hire the married teacher — just as long as she’s married to the “right” sort of husband:

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1 Comment

  • Duke, January 7, 2015 @ 3:26 am Reply

    Laura, I challenge your readers to find this quote — which you put in quotation marks — anywhere in my post, or in any writings of mine anywhere:

    “Elysian secretly hires only unmarried teachers to reduce the school’s share of health benefits.”

    You owe me and your readers an immediate apology and retraction.

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