Should Seniority Count in Teacher Layoffs?

Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

Education reformers were feeling optimistic. With President Obama's Race to the Top competition, which offers financial rewards to states willing to hold teachers accountable for their students' performance, they've made real progress in weeding out poor teachers.

But now the reformers have spotted a dark cloud on the horizon. State budgets, particularly in badly managed big states like California, New York, and New Jersey, are out of control. Although Congress managed to avoid massive teacher layoffs last year with federal aid, the stimulus money is running out, and congressmen do not appear to be in the mood for more deficit spending. That means teacher layoffs are coming—perhaps more than 100,000 nationwide. In most states, union contracts or state law requires they be done by seniority, so the newest teachers are pink-slipped, no matter how good they are. " 'Last in, first out' virtually guarantees that all our great, young teachers will be out of a job, and some of the least effective will stay in the classroom," says Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago.

Such layoffs disproportionately hurt students attending the lowest-performing schools, because they tend to have the highest proportion of new teachers. In some Los Angeles schools last year, such cuts wiped out 50 to 70 percent of the faculty.

One surprising solution may come from Knowles's home city of Chicago. The state of Illinois is one of the worst-run in the country, rivaling even California for its unwillingness to take the steps necessary to stanch the flow of red ink. As a result, Chicago is facing pressure to cut 900 teacher jobs. Under the usual union contract, the last hired were to be the first fired, competent or not.

But the Chicago School Board, handpicked by the Windy City's tough-minded Mayor Richard M. Daley, has interpreted a new state law as giving it the power to fire the city's 200 most incompetent teachers first.

While this might seem like common sense, it's heresy to Karen Lewis, the newly elected head of the Chicago teachers' union, who is considering going to court to fight the attack on seniority. "I admit, this is a great PR tool. Why not lay off the bad teachers first?" she conceded in an interview with NEWSWEEK. But on closer inspection, she says, there is no way of doing it fairly. In Chicago's troubled urban school district, 99 percent of the 23,000 or so teachers are rated "excellent" or "superior," while less than 0.1 percent are rated "unsatisfactory." Employing some creative logic, Lewis asks: "Why are the worst evaluations believable, but the best are not?"

Reformers scoff at the union boss's arguments. "While principals may not be consistently evaluating their teachers to the extent that they should, they certainly know who the worst teachers are in their buildings and have been using all sorts of tricks of the trade over the years to get these teachers to move to other schools," says Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a reform advocacy group.

Largely because of the carrots dangled by Race to the Top, a growing number of states, including Colorado, Tennessee, Delaware, and Oklahoma, have changed their laws to make teacher performance a factor in tenure and firing decisions, but very few can use it to make layoff decisions. The District of Columbia's public-school system is one place that can. Arizona has gone the furthest, making it illegal to consider seniority in layoff, tenure, and even rehiring decisions. But defying the unions is hard going. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had to back away from layoffs based on performance and shoot for an across-the-board pay freeze.

Analysts say that states' money troubles will continue to shrink budgets over the next year, and school districts that have already cut to the bone will have to find new ways to make less go further. Weeding out the weakest teachers and keeping the most effective "is the only policy that makes sense for districts to implement in tough times," says Walsh. After all, when student needs bump up against adult needs, is there any question whose should come first?