Teacher Layoffs: Should Seniority Rule?

A Community Matters reader sent in a link to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Teacher Seniority Rules Challenged.  (The full article is below).  I wonder if the majority of educators favor or disfavor seniority-based layoff protections. I wonder how the majority of citizens feel as well. If I had to guess, I’d venture that most citizens are against teacher seniority serving as the primary determinant of job protection. I’m not sure about public school educators. What do you think?

I know that the challenging of teacher layoffs based on seniority is not a favorable teacher union approach.  But if school administration did not use seniority to make the necessary budget cuts, what credible evaluation system could be properly used? Isn’t the major issue with “merit” based decisions on either pay or layoffs and even staffing is who is deciding?  In the case of the TESD 2010-11 budget, it is understood that the District will not use teacher layoffs as a means to correct the budgetary gap . However, there will be programming cuts which will cause the furlough of teachers.  Within the programming cuts, is it a correction assumption that teacher seniority will determine which teachers stay (or go) correct?  This is an interesting topic; I’d like to hear from teachers, parents, administrators, residents.  But do read the following article, think you will find it of interest:

Teacher Seniority Rules Challenge

With Tens of  Thousands of Layoffs Looming, Government Officials and Parents Want to Change the ‘Last in, First out’ System

By Barbara Martinez 

Teacher seniority rules are meeting resistance from government officials and parents as a wave of layoffs is hitting public schools and driving newer teachers out of classrooms.

In a majority of the country’s school districts, teacher layoffs are handled on a “last in, first out” basis. Critics of seniority rules worry that many effective and talented teachers who have been hired in recent years will lose their jobs.

Unions say that seniority rules are the only objective way to carry out layoffs, and that they protect teachers from the whims and bias of managers, who might fire effective teachers they don’t like.

This year, because of cuts in state aid to New York City, the city could be facing a loss of about 8,500 teacher jobs out of a total of 80,000. The last time the nation’s largest school system laid off a teacher was 1976.If New York City is forced to lay off some of the more than 30,000 new teachers it has hired in the past five years, it is “going to be catastrophic,” said Joel Klein, chancellor of the city’s school system. “We’re going to be losing a lot of great new teachers that we hired” in recent years, the chancellor said.

Mr. Klein added that another problem with “last in, first out” was that because newer teachers earn less than veterans, more teachers will end up losing their jobs.

First-grader Victoria Bernade copies a sentence as teacher Lori Peck goes over sentence structure at Grace L. Patterson Elementary school in Vallejo, Calif., on Feb. 12.

What Mr. Klein “is really trying to say is, ‘I would like to churn the work force by keeping cheaper teachers on the payroll,’ ” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, the teachers union in New York. “If we can do our work in a constructive and collaborative way, we can avoid the layoffs. That’s where we should be focusing our energy.” Mr. Klein has requested a number of times that the state legislature ban the sole use of seniority in layoff decisions. California’s governor made the same request last month. While politicians in these states are unlikely to enact such bans, the movement is gaining traction elsewhere.

Last year, Arizona passed a ban, and schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., in addition to letting go some new teachers, laid off some who would otherwise have been protected by union seniority rules. Teachers unions in Arizona and Washington sued over the moves, but they lost their court challenges.

“It is a pent-up issue that has been pushed off and pushed off, and now we have to deal with it,” said Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit that helps recruit teachers in mostly urban school districts and opposes seniority-based layoffs.

“It’s not just that you will lose teachers that you invested a lot in,” he said, “these cuts are being made in a quality-blind way.” Mr. Daly said some school districts were forced to lay off teacher-of-the-year nominees last year.

About 60,000 school workers were laid off across the country last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, double the number laid off in 2008 and three times the level in 2007. The total number of public education jobs fell in 2009 for the first time since 1984, according to the BLS. Declining state revenues, which result from the country’s economic turmoil and high unemployment, only increase the probability of more large-scale teacher layoffs ahead, said Marguerite Roza, a professor at the University of Washington’s College of Education.

“We would expect that education jobs will be hit harder in 2010,” Ms. Roza said. “Given last year’s layoff trends, we should expect even more layoffs this year.”

Parents in some school districts are beginning to organize over the issue. In Seattle last year, parents started asking, “Why is my great teacher being laid off while this teacher, who everybody knows is not a good teacher, doesn’t get laid off?” said Venus Velazquez, a parent who said she is one of dozens attempting to remove the seniority protection from the next teacher contract. “We don’t want to go back to the ’50s or ’60s, when people were laid off because of the color of their skin or because a woman was pregnant,” said Glenn Bafia, executive director of the Seattle Education Association, a teachers union.

Mr. Bafia said poor-performing Seattle teachers need to be encouraged to leave teaching through an administrative process. “That’s the principal’s responsibility. If the principal refuses to do their job, that’s an issue,” he said. When it comes to layoffs, “seniority is the only objective criteria there is out there.”

For the unions, the pushback is in some cases coming from people who consider themselves liberal and pro-union. “I consider myself a union supporter, but I don’t support the seniority system,” said Lynnell Mickelsen of Minneapolis, who is organizing a community group to oppose the main use of seniority in layoffs. In a shrinking school system, which has resulted in the loss of 1,300 teacher jobs since 2001, “terrific teachers have been laid off, and [some of those remaining] are depressingly, relentlessly mediocre,” Ms. Mickelsen said. “People are so frustrated about this.”

Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis teachers union, said the union and the system already work together to remove ineffective teachers, pushing out between 400 and 500 teachers in the past 10 years. With poorly performing teachers already being addressed, “seniority gives us a fair way of saying how do we lay people off in a way that’s equitable,” she explained.

 Ms. Mickelsen isn’t buying it: “When it comes to key contract clauses like seniority, the needs of teachers and kids are not the same.”

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11 Responses

  1. You have competing intrerests here. On one hand, your longest tenured teachers tend to be your most expensive. On the other hand, they are the most experienced as well. It’s one of the reasons we have ADEA (Age Discrimination Employment Act). Of course, this is all bound by the collective bargaining agreement.

    Any criteria that is used to the exclusion of performance is suspect in my opinion. The deal is, those in charge of the union tend to be teachers that have been in the system the longest – so it is their interest they are protecting.

    Another case where a political organization eats their own…….. ;)

    Personally, I would like to see the teacher union broken. They have garnered too much political power – which to a large degree – is/was due to an apathetic school board.

    Let them strike. Where is Ronald Reagan when we need him most! We need a reset as the current situation is not sustainable.

    Remember…if it is in the contract, it is because the school board agreed to it. Then again, our board is the same one that agreed to pay for Dan Waters’ kids education…

    Think about how perverse that is.

  2. Note that the article appears in The Wall Street Journal.

    The only people who prefer seniority preference to any other system are the senior union members. It would be better to lay off underperforming teachers, or expensive teachers — of course, either of these criteria would disproportionately hit senior teachers. But even randomized layoffs would be preferable to the “first-in first-out” layoffs currently required by the union: FIFO causes the maximum number of people lose their job, since the most junior teachers are also the lowest paid!

  3. How do teachers who don’t enjoy seniority feel about this? If layoffs are done due to budget constraints then the fact that only junior teachers can be laid off means that more people overall will lose their jobs in order to meet the same budget cut, since junior teachers are paid so much less.

    (If I were a junior teacher I would be pretty unhappy about my union being so ready to throw me under the bus to keep a few senior teachers living high on the hog.)

  4. Choosing which teachers to lay off is a slippery issue and not one with an easy, one-size-fits-all answer. Should teacher retention be based on seniority or merit? I believe it should be based on seniority IF there also is proven merit, but how should merit be documented?

    Probably not a very favorable stance — I believe that teachers should be regularly evaluated–both formally and informally–by administrators, peers, students, parents, and even outside educational consultants. Too often, years of service and the status quo have been trusted without documentation or evidence of merit. I also think that great classroom performance has gone unnoticed because of the lack of formal evaluation processes. No one sees or documents the enormous strides teachers make in the classrooms every day – an evaluation system would help the good teachers (and maybe weed out the bad ones).

  5. Seniority is a time-honored means of eliminating favoritism in the workplace. It goes much deeper than union contracts. Seniority represents solidarity between generations, where older workers share their experience with the next generation and younger workers protect older workers as they begin to slow down. That is the foundation of unions in this country.

    Seniority and other worker protections have been under attack for the last 25 years throughout American industry, to be replaced by favoritism and fear. The only difference is that, in industry, the attack on seniority is justified in the name of efficiency and competitiveness, while in schools it’s justified in the name of the children.

    Residents may think that the teacher unions are too controlling but it is this protection of teacher seniority that makes TESD the level of school that makes people want to live here.

    • Here’s a thought.. How about using job performance as a metric.

      Seriously, don’t get me started. I have never seen a group more defensive and less willing to acknowledge criticism than teachers.

      I had a teacher once tell me that I wasn’t a professional educator. I told her that unlike her, I had the equivalent of a doctorate degree.

      Seniority is a time honored means of protecting those that have been in the system a long time. If anything, it creates a dis-incentive to stay at the top of your game.

    • Seniority is also what allowed my history teachers throughout my years at Conestoga to to completely inept teachers, and the reason why I didn’t learn one thing about history during my years at high school.
      Not sure if I should name names here, but specifically I had a history teacher in 11th grade that literally did not do anything but show film strips, to which no one ever paid attention. The class was a joke, and the teacher didn’t care at all. He would have us grade each other’s tests, and then we would line up and enter our own grades into his grade book. Of course everyone gave themselves passing grades.
      Maybe he was a great teacher when he was younger, he seemed like a nice guy and everything, but he was milking the system that had absolutely no accountability.
      Another teacher I had at Valley Forge would literally fall asleep in the middle of class in the middle of his sentences. I don’t think he even really graded out tests because people would just write nonsense in their fill in the blank tests and most of the time it would be graded as correct.
      In my view, seniority represents a division between generations, where older workers hold onto their positions with a death-grip as they begin to slow down, milking the system for all its worth. All the while, young, motivated teachers are left out on the sidelines. THAT is the foundation of unions in this country.

  6. Teachers are regularly observed and evaluated — but it’s basically pass/fail. Seniority is the only way it works until you allow merit — and please don’t be knee jerk about a strike. It accomplishes ZERO as teachers don’t lose a dime, the community becomes chaotically divided (especially between working parents and stay-at-home parents who have to deal with child care) and it ends without any requirement for a settlement because it’s based on the calendar. IN other words, strikes are nothing but disruptive. And the outcome of laying off less expensive teachers doesn’t mean more will be laid off — it means there will be less accomplished financially with a layoff. Layoffs are not permitted under state law for cost reasons — which is why there have to be applications to change programs.
    And the contracts are NOT because of lazy school boards. I will suggest that the teachers always have an edge because they collectively bargain (and compare notes with every other district in the region/state by setting goals) and school boards are negotiated by the people elected — who rarely speak to any other districts in their process. It’s not a full-time job, it’s unpaid and contrary to some observers conclusions, NOT EASY since everyone watching presumably went to school once — so knows about as much as a board member going in.

  7. Thanks for this stimulating article and discussion.

    Seniority is so widely accepted and used throughout the economy, that unless there is a better performance-related alternative I can’t see much chance of change. However, the success of Washington DC – often cited by the White House as a model – in laying off some teachers who would otherwise have been protected by union seniority rules deserves some analysis.

    From the Washington Post: “When budget issues force staff reductions, D.C. law gives Rhee and her principals broad latitude to make decisions about dismissals according to four general categories: the needs of the school, contributions and performance, special experience that teachers might bring to class, and length of service. ”

    The T/E contract offers much less leeway. “If any professional staff is reduced, any resulting furlough shall occur in inverse order of seniority within the area of certification to which the Employee is currently assigned”. And: “When furloughs of Employees occur, Employer shall realign Employees to ensure that more senior Employees are provided with the opportunity to fill positions for which they are certified and which are being filled by less senior Employees”.

    So, we are stuck with a situation in which the union is trading jobs of younger teachers for salary and benefit increases for older teachers. In the 2010/11 preliminary budget (with the $9.2 million deficit), total salaries (predominantly professional staff) are up $3.2 million, healthcare and other benefits are up $2.6 million. This $5.8 million is the dominant driver of the current discussion. (A 2.9% tax increase covers $2.4 million of the remaining $3.4 million gap, leaving only the $1.1 million net PSERS increase to be covered).

    It’s because of the rigidities built into the whole union/employer contract system and the unwillingness to flex with the broader economy’s ability to pay that taxpayers are getting fed up, as expressed in the WSJ article. Although public sector union funds will keep flowing to state politicians, it will not be so easy for them to dodge financial responsibility. And here in T/E, there will be much more public contract scrutiny next time around.

  8. Thanks for this Ray. I note that it is DC law that gives the latttude, not a contract. Is that the case? I haven’t reviewed the statistics in years, but at one time, more than 70% of the teachers ‘ strikes in the US took place in PA…the laws do not give the district much leverage. The post above is correct as to the typical outcome of strikes in this state. They don’t end because anything is settled — they end when the calendar is in jeopardy of not getting enough school days in before June 30, the end of the fiscal year, and a judge orders them back to work. Stop Teachers Strikes.org is trying to make a difference in this. However much time the union is on strike, a teacher still earns a full year’s “salary” and the community can really be damaged. JP said previously that my comments lacked legitimacy because I had negotiated contracts, (9 years ago) but I will say that the process is not just back and forth — it is about starting with what you have and negotiating changes. And if a board isn’t willing to understand the history of how they got here (e.g., asking former board members for some background – understanding), then sometimes progress made in one contract is lost in the next because the union knows what it’s after and what it has given up. When I was on the board, I actually spoke to LMSD and RSD about their contracts and goals — and it wasn’t exactly an open exchange. It’s a seriously flawed process — but absent state or county contracts mandated by the legislature, I don’t foresee anyone voluntarily giving up local control. Not sure they should either. But the legislature continues to muddle in the process — even knowing that the PSEA is the largest lobby in the state.

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