Will Obama Take Next Step on Teachers?

States and school districts across the country are about to lay off boatloads of teachers if something isn't done soon. Worse, outdated seniority rules mean that many of the best younger teachers will lose their jobs first. Some "teachers of the year" have already received pink slips. Fortunately there's something we can do about it if Washington has the guts.

In 2009, Obama's stimulus bill sent close to $100 billion to the states to prevent layoffs. Without the stimulus—which received no Republican votes in the House and only two in the Senate—hundreds of thousands more teachers (not to mention fire and police personnel) would have lost their jobs. But in the rush, there were no strings attached. That can't be allowed to happen again.

The New Teacher Project unveiled a proposal Monday to give $23 billion to the states to prevent a new round of teacher layoffs but only for those states that remove their prohibitions on using anything other than seniority to determine who gets laid off. Why should states and districts be required to apply a "last hired, first fired" system that is totally inadequate for the educational challenges we face? These aren't widgets but kids we're talking about. Seniority is a crime against them.

Not surprisingly, the teachers' unions are totally opposed to any effort to allow any factor other than seniority to be used. (The New Teacher Project simply wants seniority to be one of several standards to determine layoffs). It's not clear that Obama and his terrific education secretary, Arne Duncan, are eager to take on the unions again, as they have so impressively with their "Race to the Top" program.

As it happens, the politics favor using these strings. Getting any new federal money—much less $23 billion—will be tough under today's budget constraints. The only hope is to attract some Republicans who have been ahead of Democrats in understanding the malign influence of seniority rules in education.

If Obama wants to be true to his principles—and continue to get an A from education reformers—he will embrace the New Teacher Project proposal as his own.