No Substitutes for Good Substitutes

McQuade: Why privatization in Philadelphia schools might mean more urinary tract infections for teachers.

In mid-June, the School Reform Commission voted unanimously to outsource school substitute management.

“The vendor was able to commit to us to provide high quality substitutes at a 90 percent fill rate by January of next year,” district human resources head Naomi Wyatt told The Inquirer at the time. “They have extensive experience in Pennsylvania and in the mid-Atlantic.” Many teachers had described the previous substitute experience in need of reform. Perhaps privatization would work out.

By late June, people began seeing the drawbacks. Previously, certified teachers who subbed made $75 a day for the first 22 days of teaching, then $160 a day after that. Non-certified teachers made $47.63 a day (and $126 a day after 22 days). Special ed and retired teachers made more. Most teachers were paid at the higher rate.

Obviously, this is how this privatization has worked: Subs are now making less, though there is a pay bump for both certified and non-certified teachers in the first 22 days of subbing. Certified teachers make between $90 and $110 a day. Non-certified teachers make between $75 and $90 a day. The most a teacher can make is $140 a day, for a certified long-term substitute serving more than 22 days.

And those improved substitute fill rates? Source4Teachers isn’t hitting them. Inky Pulitzer winner Kristen Graham reported yesterday the best Source4Teachers has done is fill 12 percent of vacancies in one day. The company promised to fill 75 percent of vacancies to start, and 90 percent by mid-year.

The new pay rate works out to about 15 bucks an hour for a qualified teacher, which is simply not enough to attract people who in some cases have master’s degrees. But outsourcing subs does a disservice to those trying to break into the profession, too: For years subbing jobs in schools have been a pathway to full-time employment for new teachers. But when an outside company manages subbing, the school district has less of an idea of who is actually coming in and teaching. It’s not just the lower pay that discourages teachers from subbing under the new system.

The high substitute vacancy rate is bad in another way for teachers, too, health-wise. When there aren’t enough subs in a building, other teachers have to fill in on their breaks for classrooms that don’t have teachers. That means they often lose their breaks. They have to rush from class to class. Sometimes they don’t even have time to use the bathroom and have to hold it in for hours. Yes, there is a direct line from a school not getting substitute teachers to an outbreak of UTIs in a school. Published research has shown that (at least male) teachers get more urinary tract infections, and teachers don’t have enough time to use the bathroom anyway. A lack of school subs could be a public health issue!

Source4Teachers did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman told the Inquirer high call volumes are expected at the start of the year, and that it has added staff and extended hours. Time will tell if the company gets to the substitute rates promised in its three-year, $34 million contract.