Teaching Profession

NYC Weighs Seniority vs. Merit as Layoffs Loom

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 11, 2011 6 min read
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Teachers in New York City have a lot of questions on their minds these days: How many, if any, will be laid off? And which set of criteria will be used to make the tough call—the seniority provisions as currently required in state law or one of several revisions now floating around the Statehouse in Albany?

The jobs of up to 4,600 teachers—about 6 percent of the city’s teaching force—as well as others in districts across the state, hang on the answers.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has said those cuts are necessary to plug a spending gap exacerbated by a proposed reduction of $1.4 billion in state aid to the city in the governor’s budget proposal for the 2012 fiscal year. And the mayor has urged the state legislature to allow the city to let go of teachers with “unsatisfactory” evaluation ratings before other teachers. State law currently requires layoffs by reverse seniority.

“What we’re looking for is an opportunity to lay off teachers based on merit now,” said Jessica Scaperotti, a spokeswoman for the mayor.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, has said he supports revisions to state layoff policy. But a piece of legislation he recently unveiled to expedite a state overhaul of teacher evaluations does not specifically address layoffs. And it has yet to be taken up by the legislature.

The president of the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s union, has another priority altogether: avoiding layoffs and preventing larger class sizes.

“If we lose any more teaching positions, you’re talking about another 5 to 7 percent rise in class sizes,” said Michael Mulgrew. “It doesn’t matter what the mayor says. Every education researcher will tell you class sizes are important.”

How teachers should be laid off during reductions-in-force has emerged as one of the most controversial issues in proposals to improve teacher quality—one that will be in the spotlight as states and districts continue to struggle in a slowly recovering economy.

Clock Ticking

On layoff policies, New York City comes as an especially important litmus test, given its size and symbolic importance as the most populous school system in the country, with 1.1 million students.

Scholars who study layoff policies, meanwhile, say that little is certain about how the New York City situation might play out, given the uncertainty about the size of the cuts and the layoff criteria that might be used. What is clear, though, is that the population of teachers to be cut would differ greatly depending on the criteria ultimately used.

“There is different information in all these ways of defining layoffs,” said James H. Wyckoff, a professor of education policy at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, and a co-author of a 2010 analysis on layoffs in New York City.

Using several years of data culminating in 2008-09, that paper estimated the impact of a cut of about 5 percent of the total salaries of the 4th and 5th grade teaching force under two different scenarios: one using reverse seniority criteria and another applying value-added estimates of teacher performance.

Only about 13 percent of teachers would be cut under both of those projected scenarios.

The paper concluded that using multiple measures in layoffs would allow officials to weigh the importance of several different aspects of the workforce.

Doing away with last-in, first-out, or LIFO, policies in the state theoretically has bipartisan support from Gov. Cuomo, a Democrat, and Mayor Bloomberg, who was elected as a Republican but has since run as an Independent.

The two powerful leaders originally differed over the timeline for doing so, but in recent days, they seemed eager to put aside those differences. A proposal Mr. Cuomo put out earlier this month would move up by a year the state’s new evaluation system, now scheduled to roll out for English and math teachers in 2012-13, and expand it to other grades and subjects.

Mr. Bloomberg, on the other hand, had endorsed a bill to end last-in, first-out policies in the state immediately, by allowing for the dismissal of teachers with “unsatisfactory” ratings, repeated absenteeism, a criminal conviction, or lapsed certification. The bill cleared the state Senate, but will not be put to the Assembly by its speaker, Sheldon Silver, a Democrat.

“We’re talking about the same time frame—not tomorrow, but not six months from now, either,” Mr. Cuomo has said of his conversations with Mr. Bloomberg about a compromise.

Union Response

But Mr. Mulgrew, the UFT president, asserts that the city could tap $3.1 billion in funds to prevent layoffs altogether, a claim the union has repeated in television ads.

The push for doing away with last-in, first-out policies, in the absence of an overhauled evaluation system, would allow for dismissals riddled by favoritism and abuse, Mr. Mulgrew added. And while the UFT supports the development of the state’s new evaluation system, he said it wouldn’t, for now, entertain proposals to change layoff policies.

“This 4,600 figure—I think the whole thing is suspect,” he said. “It’s pretty clear to us the mayor is trying to use the economic downturn the whole country is facing to change our state law.”

City officials dispute the UFT’s charges, pointing to accounting statements indicating that $3.1 billion in funds, some of which was rolled over from fiscal 2011 and some of which represents new revenue, is already earmarked to help plug city deficits.

The New York City debate is also inflected with a civil rights rhetoric that has appeared in debates about last-in, first-out policies elsewhere. In Los Angeles, for instance, the American Civil Liberties Union and other plaintiffs recently achieved a settlement in a lawsuit against the district to shelter low-income schools from losing a disproportionate number of teachers.

Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Cathleen P. Black have used similar arguments to push for changes to last-in, first-out policies in New York.

But an analysis by the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank in Washington with ties to the American Federation of Teachers, the UFT’s parent union, concluded that based on recent data, high- and low-poverty schools stand to lose a similar proportion of teachers under the projected layoffs.

Mr. Wyckoff and his colleagues came to a similar conclusion in their paper. They found only small differences in the average characteristics of students taught by teachers to be laid off under the two scenarios.

But Mr. Wyckoff said that such a phenomenon could be unique to New York City, which has made strides in closing teacher-quality gaps.

“It makes sense when you consider that New York, in the 2000s, improved the distribution of teacher experience and other qualifications across poverty status of the schools,” he said. (“Urban Districts Found to Be Narrowing the Teacher Gap,” July 16, 2008.)

Finding the Money

In the meantime, some observers attributed the intensity of local opposition to changing last-in, first-out policies to the fact that the city has not seen mass teacher layoffs since the 1970s. Last year, for instance, the city avoided layoffs partly by freezing teacher and principal salaries, for a savings of $400 million. That option is not on the table this time around.

“There’s this influential piece of thinking floating around that somehow Bloomberg will find the money to avert the layoffs,” said Tim Daly, the president of the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit teacher-training group that has been critical of last-in, first-out policies. “So there’s this sense of, ‘Why all the fuss about LIFO?’ ”

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as Dueling Policies on Layoffs Pushed for N.Y. Teachers

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