HB 145 – A Department Chair Perspective

By EDWARD BIRNBAUM
Los Alamos

Statements in the local media have represented House Bill 145 as something that only union shills could vote against. However, anyone that has followed the use of adjunct faculty in education should understand that there are actually serious reasons why one might not vote for it, at least in its current form.

Prior to my retirement from a 15-year stint as a university department chair, I often hired adjunct instructors to meet our teaching needs, so I am quite familiar with “the good, the bad and the ugly” of this process. Adjunct instructors on limited-term contracts can be hired to fill a short-term vacancy due to a regular teaching faculty member taking a leave, to offer a specialty course to provide students with a broader educational experience, or to replace a tenured faculty member at a lower salary and with fewer paid benefits.

Using adjunct faculty to offer a specialty course within their area of expertise works best. Such a person will have at least a BS, but preferably a MS or PhD degree in that area, as well as several years of experience, and teach only the one course on an as-needed basis. There is no guarantee of course that such a person will be able to connect with students, get them excited about the subject, or be an effective teacher, but there is little downside risk, other than boring the students and wasting the dollars used for the hire. Such a person typically has a full-time job and does not rely on the adjunct salary to pay bills or provide for healthcare or retirement.

In contrast, when adjuncts are used to replace regular teaching faculty that teach courses in the required curriculum, there are a variety of serious issues that must be considered.

HB 145 stipulates that up to 50 percent of all courses offered in grades 7 through 12 may be taught by adjunct faculty on one-year contracts. Should the numbers of adjunct faculty reach even half that number, the fiscal stability of the Educational Retirement fund (ERB), the current educator pension system, will be seriously eroded, as discussed in the LFC analysis of the bill. Since adjunct faculty do not pay into the system (or benefit from the system), there will not be enough dollars flowing into the pension system to offset the dollars being withdrawn by retiring educators, increasing the already large unfunded actuarial liability.  So going down this road makes no sense from a fiscal perspective, especially since the legislature just recently modified the system with the goal of increasing its fiscal stability.

There are other problems. For example, hiring an adjunct who has a BS degree in a subject such as chemistry (my field) doesn’t necessarily mean he/she understands the subject at the appropriate level or has the skillset necessary to explain it to someone else, i.e., the students in the class. Although the bill specifies that the prospective adjunct also have at least three years of experience in the field, very few jobs require someone to actually use the broad level of knowledge of a subject that would be expected to be taught in the classroom. Just because a person uses radiochemistry in his/her job doesn’t mean he/she retains the breadth of knowledge needed to be an effective instructor of general chemistry at the high school level.

Another problem with replacing regular faculty with adjunct faculty is that they make little or no contribution outside the classroom. They are typically only on campus to teach their class, and students have a hard time finding them to ask questions about course material. In addition, they have no responsibility or expectation to advise students, to write letters of recommendation, to sponsor or support student clubs or other student activities, etc.

Finally, I suspect that most people not involved in education think of adjunct faculty as individuals who love their subject and who have a desire to transmit that love to students, often as a volunteer or for minimal pay. In my experience this certainly does occur, but House Bill 145 does not limit the hiring of adjuncts to just these kind of individuals. Rather, this bill permits the hiring of adjunct faculty to teach up to one half of the regular curriculum, with each adjunct able to teach up to one half of a full teacher’s workload, year after year at the bottom of the pay scale, ineligible for health or retirement benefits, able to be fired at the discretion of the school board at any time and with no surety of employment from one year to the next. In the real world, adjunct faculty who fill these posts under these conditions have no loyalty to the school, may travel from school to school to attain full employment, and are resentful of their employment situation, with the result that students often end up with constant turnover of instructors delivering indifferent instruction or worse.

HB 145 sounds like a great idea, but putting it into practice as written using adjunct faculty in all grades from 7th to 12th, including charter schools, will erode the teacher pension system, make the hiring and retention of full-time teachers even more difficult, and ultimately result in a poorer educational experience for the students. The primary benefit will be to lower the cost of instruction, but at the expense of the students.

I am pleased that Representative Garcia-Richard voted against this bill, and the fact that Sharon Stover the Republican candidate for District 43 supports this legislation (in agreement with Governor Martinez) just illustrates how little she knows about education.

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