Documentaries have been defined as attempts–often by small, independent film makers–to “document” reality. Most are created and produced on small budgets and receive little in the way of mainstream publicity. But one soon-to-be released documentary has been getting a fair amount of attention. The Rubber Room, a film produced by Five Burroughs, an independent production company in New York City, promises an inside look into “reassignment centers” for teachers in the New York City School District who have been removed from the classroom for various reasons but because of their union contracts, cannot be fired. During the last couple of years, these re-assignment centers, nicknamed “rubber rooms,” have become a hot topic for bloggers and newspaper editorial columnists.
Why has this topic generated so much interest? It may be helpful to start with some background information. Rubber rooms are, first of all, a union negotiated arrangement. Teachers accused of “crimes” ranging from insubordination to molesting students are removed from classrooms in the New York City School District. But since union contracts granted tenure after just three years, most cannot be fired without due process. Furthermore, it can take months, sometimes years, for these teachers to get a formal hearing. So unable to work in the classroom but unable to be fired, they must report, day after day, to these re-assignment centers located in various parts of the city. They have no students to teach, no papers to grade, and no other real duties or responsibilities. To pass the time, some sleep, some read, and some spend their time talking or playing board games. In the meantime, they all continue to draw their full salary and get the usual vacations, including summers off. Taxpayers foot the bill, at an estimated cost of tens of millions of dollars a year.
So are these teachers actually victims, as many of them contend, forced to spend time in some nightmarish human resources purgatory? Or are they opportunists, gaming the system at taxpayers’ expense? The subject of rubber rooms almost seems to raise more questions than answers. In theory, their existence seems logical—after all, no reasonable person would want someone who has been accused of molesting a student or being drunk in the classroom to continue teaching children. But being accused of something doesn’t necessarily mean that you are guilty, and teachers have a right to due process before being fired. The most serious concern seems to center around the length of time—an average of three years–that many teachers are required to wait before they receive a hearing. A shortage of qualified arbitrators who are able to hear these cases is cited as one of the primary reasons for these long delays. But if that is true, one has to wonder why the teachers’ union, with all its negotiating power and support, hasn’t lobbied harder to speed the process. Perhaps it is cheaper to pay these teachers to sit around and do nothing than it is to fire them? Or could it have something to do with the fact that the union continues to collect dues from these teachers while they wait for their hearings?
Of course, union representatives and the teachers themselves will argue that they cannot be fired without due process because they have tenure. But one can reasonably argue that tenure has been granted too quickly and too easily in the past. The subject has generated a fair amount of national interest recently, particularly in Washington D.C. where schools chancellor Michelle Rhee has fought to modify the practice. In return she has offered teachers the opportunity to earn six figure salaries, provided they agree to be evaluated on merit, not seniority. There are also those who argue that the entire concept of tenure for elementary and high-school teachers is outdated and needs to end. In a recent editorial in The Kansas City Star, Jonah Goldberg reasons that, while there may be a serious argument for giving college professors the freedom to offer unpopular views, tenure for kindergarten teachers is “just crazy.” But the teachers’ unions fought long and hard to obtain tenure for their members, and it is not a benefit they will relinquish without a serious fight.
As it turns out though, it may be the controversy over rubber rooms has provided a tipping point with regard to the public’s perception of teachers’ unions. In September 2009, Steven Brill wrote a scathing article in The New Yorker in which he criticized rubber rooms and the teachers’ union. A month later, The Wall Street Journal published an article titled, How Teachers’ Unions Lost the Media, crediting the Mr. Brill’s article to contributing, at least in some part, to unions falling out of favor with the mainstream media. Once seen as defenders of a sacred public institution, teachers’ unions are now just as likely to be viewed as obstacles to needed educational reform. It is probably fair to say that most teachers are hard working, caring public servants who deserve to be treated with respect. But in a period of recession and ten percent unemployment, it may be hard for many individuals to sympathize with teachers who believe they are entitled to a job for life, regardless of how effective they are in the classroom. It also seems like a bit of a stretch to say that there is no such thing as a bad teacher, and that no teacher ever deserves to be fired. The public may be losing patience with the unions whose primary responsibility is not to educate our children, but to protect its dues paying members. So perhaps the most important question is not whether the teachers assigned to the rubber rooms are victims or opportunists. Maybe instead we should ask whether teachers unions have lost—or are about to lose—widespread public support, and what that means for the future of public education.