School & District Management

Congress Urged to Tie Aid in Jobs Bill to Elimination of Seniority-Based Firing

By Stephen Sawchuk — May 18, 2010 3 min read
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With districts across the nation sending off thousands of pink slips, the issue of seniority-based layoffs has leapt front and center into the debate about changes to the teacher-quality continuum.

Though typically a state and district issue, layoff policy has even managed to attract federal attention. “Last hired, first fired” practices are being hotly contested in the context of the $23 billion education jobs bill up for consideration on Capitol Hill.

The bill would dole out additional aid to cover education jobs using the same formula as the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund from the $100 million federal economic-stimulus legislation, signed into law last year.

Though the new jobs bill is largely supported by Washington-based education organizations, a handful of others—mainly signatories of the Education Equality Project, a coalition of advocacy groups that generally support stronger accountability for teachers—are arguing that the additional funding should be contingent on states abandoning seniority-based layoff policies.

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Though common across the nation, such policies generally exacerbate layoffs because they require districts to cut more teachers to achieve budget parity than a seniority-neutral system, potentially driving up class sizes and shuffling educators in the district. (“Layoff Policies Could Diminish Teacher Reform,” February 25, 2009.)

“If they are serious about this really being a jobs bill, legislators need to make this change,” said Amy Wilkins, the vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, a group that advocates for poor students.

Labor Concerns

Teachers’ unions, though, raised concerns about whether the bill could override local bargaining agreements, and questioned the idea that veteran teachers may not be effective.

“This idea that if you’re young you must be a good teacher and if you’re a veteran you must not be, that’s a very false assumption,” said Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association.

Favoritism and ageism could enter into the layoff equation if principals alone get to determine who stays and who leaves, he added. “I’m just not willing to put in the hands of one person all the biases that led to seniority in the first place,” Mr. Van Roekel said.

So far, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a sponsor of the jobs measure and the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has argued that the new language would stymie attempts to push the funding out quickly.

“When a house is burning, first you put out the fire. Then you talk about reforms,” he said in a statement. “If Congress has to spend weeks debating teacher tenure, there will be no jobs bill.”

State and Local Debate

Whether or not the $23 billion fund passes, it is clear from recent state and local actions the debate about seniority-based layoff policies is far from over. They include:

• The American Civil Liberties Union last week won an injunction against the Los Angeles district blocking seniority-based layoffs in three schools. The group asserted that the cuts violated the constitutional rights of students in those schools to a high quality education. Half or more of the teachers in those schools were issued layoff notices.

• California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has thrown his weight behind a bill making its way through the state legislature that would give districts more flexibility to base layoffs on policies other than seniority.

• Arizona has passed a measure outlawing the practice of seniority-based layoffs.

• Steven J. Adamowski, the superintendent of the Hartford, Conn., district, is pressing the school board to adopt a policy switching from a systemwide to a school-based seniority system. The change would minimize displacements caused by more-senior teachers “bumping” others out of their slots during layoffs.

Some experts pointed to an obstacle that has prevented more districts from experimenting with similar reforms: the lack of fair, reliable teacher-evaluation systems that would determine which teachers are highly effective and should be kept on the payroll.

Encouraged by the federal Race to the Top program, many states and districts have begun to overhaul their evaluation systems, some including consideration of student-achievement growth. But such tools are largely still in the design phase and have yet to be piloted or implemented fully.

“I’m not sure the changes [to evaluation systems] are going to happen fast enough for new teachers to be spared,” said Morgaen L. Donaldson, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, in Storrs. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for developing new teacher-evaluation systems, but until they come about, we can’t really do much with quality-based layoffs.”

Staff Writer Alyson Klein contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2010 edition of Education Week as Congress Urged to Tie Aid in Jobs Bill to Elimination of Seniority-Based Firing

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