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The Elephant in the (Rubber) Room

For years, New York City's so-called "rubber rooms"—temporary reassignment centers for teachers awaiting disciplinary hearings—were an embarrassment for both the teachers' union and for the district. Teachers essentially reported to the rooms during contractual work hours, and were paid during that time.

Back in April, the United Federation of Teachers and the school district reached an agreement to shutter the rooms. Teachers were to report for clerical duty or assignments other than instructing kids.

Now the New York Post gets a juicy story out of this new set-up. And while its headline is a bit sensational, the story makes it clear that some teachers don't see a particularly big difference between their new assignments and the rubber-room days of yore.

Obliquely, the story gets at an important point: The rubber rooms may be closed, but the policies that created a situation in which teachers get paid for doing something other than teaching remain largely untouched.

To be fair, changing those procedures is a bigger hurdle than most people realize. For one, dismissal procedures are often specified in state law and must be followed by districts. But New York City's contract added some additional layers on top of that, including an arbitration process that occurs only a few days each month.

In the April agreement, the district and the union committed to a faster timeline for hearing cases and the provision of more arbitrators to crank through them. Meanwhile, the president of the UFT's parent American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, has promised to explore differentiating due process procedures based on the substance of the claim, with a speedier resolution for cases of malfeasance vs. those that hinge on issues of performance.

But in agreeing to assign these teachers to other work, the United Federation of Teachers and the district essentially bypassed the larger philosophical question: Should teachers awaiting dismissal hearings have their pay suspended pending an outcome?

(And for that matter, is there a precedent for such a policy in any other public profession?)

A tough, tough issue. Let's hear your thoughts.

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