Friday, September 11, 2015

PA: Sub Privatizing Bombs

Philadelphia schools joined the ranks of school districts that figured they could save a buck by sub-contracting their substitute teaching work to a private company. Then, Philadelphia schools joined the ranks of school districts that found out they'd made a mistake.

Philly gave the contractor a $34 million contract, and then-- well, back before school started, they had barely 10% of the bodies they needed. I didn't run the story at the time because it was before the start of school, and sub rosters always grow once people decide they really aren't getting a job this fall. But now the school year is started, and Philly still has a measly 300 subs on the roster. The company says it has maybe 500 in the pipeline. The school district says once the year gets going, the demand is in the neighborhood of 1,000 per day.

The district hired the company after only being able to get a "fill rate" of about 66%. The company is not even close to that-- and if they don't hit 90% by January, it will start costing them money. They are mystified. Reporter Kristen A Graham quotes one of the honchos

"We've hired a good number of district originals, and many of them are just not accepting jobs," Murphy said. "Frankly, we're a little unsure why."

Source4Teachers is the outfit, and they already handle about 200 districts. Operating out of Cherry Hill, NJ, their chirpy website includes some darkly ironic rotating headlines.

We need tomorrow's teachers today. 

We need them today because we didn't find out about the absence till today. The company has complained that they don't get enough lead time on what needs to be filled, though they've certainly got plenty of lead time on the 99 unfilled teaching jobs, or the maternity leaves, or the long-term illnesses. If all other Philly teachers could plan their illnesses ahead of time, that would be very helpful.

They also need tomorrow's teachers because if they get more people who aren't actually teachers today, it will help fill the ranks with people who don't mind that this outsourcing has pushed sub jobs out of the union.

Begin a great teacher career. Or resume it.

Retirees who subbed in Philly used to make $242.83 per day. Now they make less than half that. Not that $110 is peanuts, but did Source4Teachers really think that a 53% pay cut wouldn't cause some retirees-- who don't actually have to work-- to rethink subbing?

In fact, all Philly subs took a pay cut. Source4Teachers thinks the old scale was too high and that the new rates ($75-$90 for uncertified, $90-$110 for certified) are closer to the going market rate. That may be true, but all pay being roughly equal, subs start looking at other factors that make subbing at a school more or less attractive.

And beginning a career? It's true that subbing was once a way to get your foot in the door, but I can't help noticing that Philly can't even fill the positions it has. And that many other states (the ones that aren't as actively starving schools to death as Pennsylvania is) offer ample opportunity to begin a career.

In today's classroom, there's no substitute for experience. Especially yours.

There may not be any substitute for experience, but Source4Teachers is certainly looking for it, looking hard for any sorts of warm bodies to grab some clearances and get in those classrooms. And while there may be no substitute for experience, as we've already seen, that doesn't mean they're ready to pay for it.

So, what lessons here?

This seems like a pretty straightforward lesson in how the free market works. You can't find people to fill a job. You must make the job more attractive. Source4Teachers and Philly schools have, in fact, made the job less attractive.

That's particularly problematic for substitute teaching, a job that is difficult to use as a real means of support because the work is low-paid, irregular and unpredictable. If a district really, really wants dependable sub coverage, the solution is simple-- hire permanent building subs. But that would mean a real salary with benefits, and the real problem is that districts want to have a solid, dependable stable of subs without having to actually pay for it.

With its move to sub-contract, Philly wasn't looking to get a better stable of substitute teachers-- they were looking to get a cheaper one. Now they get to learn one of the oldest lessons in the book-- you get what you pay for.


  1. "Source4Teachers thinks the old scale was too high and that the new rates ($75-$90 for uncertified, $90-$110 for certified) are closer to the going market rate."

    I love it when the "free market" worshippers don't understand the free market. "Market rate" means, in essence, what you have to pay to get what you need. If you're not getting what you need with the price you're offering, it's obviously not market rate. I thought that used to be lesson 1 in Business 101 - don't they teach that any more?

  2. Great post. I teach in "up-north" Minnesota in the largest school district in our region. We offer subs $110 a day, and have for the past decade. The smaller neighboring districts started inching up their rates a couple years ago, and now run between $125-135 a day. Subs take our jobs and then drop them to pick up last minute jobs from neighboring districts, where they can make more money and work with smaller class rosters. Teachers and subs have both been vocal about the problem, and articles have even run in the local paper. Somehow, the message just isn't getting up to the decision makers, or they are choosing not to act on the message.

    You do get what you pay for, and we live in some interesting times -- when teachers are devalued and demonized, unions are undermined, and pay is so much smaller compared to other professions, it is hard to convince the next generation to consider teaching!

    1. I should also note that a large number of our subs are recent retirees or other folks who are highly invested in our community. They have proposed the idea of creating a building sub roster or sub contracts, or even asked for a once in a decade pay increase, but there has been no response. Crazy.