Joel Klein: Not Your Average Educator

More of the best.  Less of the worst.

Few issues spark more heated emotions than education spending, and New York City Education Department Chancellor Joel Klein’s new Daily Beast piece is likely to be no different.  According to him, attempts to control costs in the Big Apple will end up hurting lots of teachers and students in the long run:

The city’s schools face a cut of $500 million in state funding for the upcoming year. Unfortunately, even with deep administrative reductions, we simply cannot absorb a cut that big without laying off teachers. Under New York state law, we’ll have to lay off teachers based entirely on how long they have been teaching, with no consideration given to their talent in the classroom or how well their students are doing.

Lewis, a third-year teacher, would be among the first to go of approximately 4,400 teachers who are vulnerable. Indeed, because of absurd seniority rules enshrined in our collective bargaining agreement, we have to fire junior teachers before we can lay off teachers who aren’t even teaching. Or before we can lay off teachers already rated unsatisfactory.

We’d also be forced to keep teachers in what’s called the “Absent Teacher Reserve” pool—a bureaucratic name for those let go from downsizing or closing schools but who remain on payroll. Many of these teachers haven’t applied for new jobs despite losing their positions as long as two years ago. And many who have looked for a job can’t find a school willing to hire them despite many vacancies. Yet none of these teachers can be laid off, even during a budget crisis.

Recently hired teachers are among our most passionate and creative, yet they make the least amount of money. Seniority-based layoffs therefore force us to discharge more teachers than layoffs based on merit. Fewer teachers mean class sizes could rise by as many as five students in some schools.

Personally, I’ve never been convinced of the oft-bemoaned horrors of rising class sizes (in fact, over the past decade, New York has been steadily hiring new teachers despite decreasing enrollment), and I’d like to know what constitutes “deep” administrative reductions to Klein, but it is refreshing to hear someone in his position make his broader argument for a change.  All other things being equal, the best teachers should be able to stay, and the worst should be the first to go should the need arise.  I don’t necessarily buy that new teachers are uniformly the best, but we all know that bureaucracies have a funny way of retaining the worst.  In particular, New York’s expensive Absent Teacher Reserve sounds like a textbook example of bureaucratic waste and insulation from responsibility.

Though a Democrat and former Clinton Administration official, Joel Klein clearly isn’t your average establishment type.  He has taken on the teachers’ unions to defend charter schools, sought to cut non-teaching substitutes lingering after one year, taken on the infamous rubber rooms, and even earned the Left’s ire by canning an anti-Israel academic.

Such independence from established leaders within the bureaucracy is a breath of fresh air.  With educators like these, we just might fix America’s public schools yet.


Hailing from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Calvin Freiburger is a political science major at Hillsdale College.  He also writes for the Hillsdale Forum and his personal website, Calvin Freiburger Online.