The rubber room

A year ago today the Village Voice published a lengthy article on the New York City public schools' so-called "rubber rooms," where teachers accused of misconduct are held while their cases are pending. The story is so outrageous it seemed worth revisiting. Frankly, tales like this make it hard to fathom just how poorly-run are many public school districts.

Rubber room hours match that of a typical school day--Argyris would sign in at 8:30 a.m. and be released at 3:20 in the afternoon, with a 50-minute lunch break. Like something out of a dystopian fairy tale, however, this school had no children, just a few cafeteria workers, social workers, and custodians who shared the same lot.

In 2000, there were 385 teachers assigned to rubber rooms. Last month, that number had climbed to 662. Argyris, while she sat and stared at a wall, was paid $62,646 a year. The DOE pays about $33 million a year just in salaries to the teachers in rubber rooms--an amount that doesn't include the salaries of investigators working on the cases of rubber room teachers, the upkeep of the reassignment centers, or the substitute teachers who replace employees like Argyris.

Some teachers spend up to three years in the rubber rooms while their cases float glacially through the district offices. They spend their time reading, playing chess, working on screenplays, knitting--one couple who met in a rubber room "had converted a corner of the room into a small love nest, complete with air mattress, sleeping bags, small fridge, and a portable DVD player."

These are the kinds of things that happen when government has a monopoly on schools. People come to support school choice not because they're dogmatically married to the idea of free markets, but because experience shows that public bureaucracies are inherently prone to such incompetent management as this story depicts.

Think about it: No organization that actually had to keep an eye on the efficiency of its operations in order to survive would do something as stupid as paying hundreds of employees $60,000 a year to sit in a room doing nothing all day.

To impose that kind of pressure and accountability on a public school district, on the other hand, requires a tremendous amount of concerted political will, which is perpetually right around the corner--i.e., it never actually materializes.

Those intrigued/outraged should also check out www.rubberroommovie.com, which features a trailer for an upcoming documentary on the rubber rooms.

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