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Seniority should not make teachers immune to layoffs

Thursday, March 3, 2011; 8:28 PM

IF, AS SEEMS likely, New York City must lay off thousands of teachers because of budget problems, Mayor Michael Bloomberg would like a say in who goes and who stays. Topping his list of those who should lose their jobs are 2,671 teachers who have been rated unsatisfactory over the past five years, 882 teachers who lack a teaching license, 291 whom an arbitrator found to be incompetent or guilty of malfeasance and 183 with records of excessive lateness or absenteeism. But state law enshrining the policy of "last in, first out" doesn't allow performance to be a factor and that means good teachers - possibly even great teachers - are likely to be forced out of the classroom.

It's an indefensible policy, and it is not unique to New York. In most school systems, seniority trumps other considerations in determining whether a teacher stays or goes. As the New Teacher Project found in a searing new report, it's actually illegal in 14 states to consider any factor other than a teacher's length of service when making layoff decisions. Only the District and three states - Arizona, Colorado and Oklahoma - require schools to consider job performance in making teacher layoff decisions.

Changing this counterproductive policy takes on a new urgency as states grapple with fiscal challenges. Former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's StudentsFirst advocacy group has calculated that at least 160,000 teachers are at risk of losing their jobs. If "last in, first out" is the rule, much of the best talent will be lost. In addition, schools serving the most disadvantaged are always the hardest hit when newer teachers are let go.

Such common-sense arguments have put seniority-based layoffs in play in a number of legislatures. The first reforms of the seniority system were initiated by Democratic lawmakers in Colorado and Oklahoma, though Republicans, more willing to take on the teachers unions, are now moving more aggressively. In New York, the GOP-controlled Senate endorsed Mr. Bloomberg's sensible ideas, but the Democratic speaker of the House refused to take up the plan, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) a disappointing accomplice. Mr. Cuomo professes to want to move beyond seniority-based layoffs, but his proposal for a revamped evaluation system would do nothing to alleviate the impending crisis. Refreshingly, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in a conference call with reporters Thursday, clearly opposed seniority as a litmus test for continued employment.

The debate over "last in, first out" has gotten caught in the heat of the Wisconsin debate over unions and collective bargaining - and that's unfortunate. Not only students but teachers, too, are hurt when they are treated, in the parlance of the New Teacher Project, like widgets or interchangeable parts. Why should the many fine men and women - who daily do heroic work often under difficult circumstances - be lumped indiscriminately with teachers who have given up on their students or who, as examples from New York City's case files show, forged doctor's excuses to explain excessive absences, committed corporal punishment against students or engaged in other misconduct? The time for timidity in changing this irrational process is long past.

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