Teaching Profession Opinion

Washington Bill Would End Seniority-Based Layoffs

By Justin Baeder — January 29, 2011 2 min read
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Washington state Sen. Rodney Tom (D-Medina) has introduced a bill (full text PDF) to require school districts to conduct layoffs based on performance ratings over the previous two years. This would overturn the near-universal practice of laying off teachers with the least seniority in their specific job category, as required by most collective bargaining agreements in the state.

In short, the bill would require districts facing layoffs to lay off the teachers with the lowest two-year average performance rating. The most recent evaluation (i.e. last year’s) would carry 60% of the weight, and the previous evaluation would make up 40%. Seniority would be the tiebreaker in the event that two teachers in the same category have identical performance ratings.

The bill would also give principals a great deal more power in school staffing. Its preamble explains:

Recognizing that for the fair evaluation of a principal based on the criteria outlined by the legislature, specifically that principals should be evaluated on creating a school culture that promotes the ongoing improvement of learning and teaching and managing both staff and fiscal resources to support student achievement and legal responsibilities for students and staff, a principal needs the ability to select teachers who have demonstrated effectiveness and have demonstrated qualifications and teaching experience that support the instructional practices of his or her school. SB 5399 Sec 1 p. 2

Accordingly, the bill stipulates that a displaced teacher cannot be assigned to a school without the approval of that school’s principal (as well as the teacher). This process is commonly known as “mutual consent.” Teachers who are unable to secure a new position within six months of being displaced may be terminated.

Predictably, the state teachers’ union is opposed to the bill, arguing that it is a hasty solution to an issue that needs to be studied more. However, I would argue that the issue has been studied enough; as Dan Goldhaber recently reported over at Rick Hess Straight Up, conducting layoffs on the basis of performance rather than seniority would result in about 3 more months of learning per year for students in classrooms affected by layoffs. Goldhaber’s post neatly summarizes the public demand for a system of performance-based layoffs, and his recent study calculates the impact such a system would have in terms of economics and student learning.

As I recently wrote, performance-based layoffs are a no-brainer: They are morally right, economically optimal, near-universal in the private sector, and common-sense to everyone. While it’s no surprise that the state teachers’ union is opposed to Sen. Tom’s bill, I don’t think public sentiment will trend in favor of the union. Last year, there was significant public outcry when Seattle laid off 165 teachers with the lowest seniority. Sen. Tom’s bill is no doubt a reaction to the growing sentiment that there is a better way to handle layoffs when they’re unfortunately necessary.

One reason this bill is a stroke of brilliance is that it imbues “unsatisfactory” and even “basic” (2 points on a 4-point scale) ratings with real power in human resources decisions, without invoking due process rights. As I argued in my previous post,

layoffs present a different opportunity and challenge—not to fire the egregiously bad, but to choose the more effective over the less-effective. Since layoffs are something that has to happen from time to time anyway, I would argue that layoff reform is a much more powerful way to improve school performance than other reforms to teacher evaluation, compensation, or career structure.

Sen. Tom says his solution will make “a billion-dollar difference in education,” and even if that’s an overstatement, I concur that nothing else on the table at this time has the same potential to improve the performance of our schools.

The opinions expressed in On Performance are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.