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The Better Way To Lay Off Teachers

On Tuesday, The Christian Science Monitor published an article assessing how the federal stimulus package will affect plans to lay off public-school teachers around the country. The short of it is that the stimulus money will make things better than expected: "Absent the stimulus, the number of K-12 jobs lost by 2011 would probably total about 574,000," the article notes. But some teachers, particularly in school districts with the most dire budget crises, will still lose their jobs. In Los Angeles, for instance, 5,000 jobs in teaching, administration, and school support are still on the chopping block, unless money can be found to keep them on the payroll.

What the article doesn't discuss thoroughly is how layoffs will happen. Typically, when a school district's budget situation demands cuts, the most junior teachers are laid off first. (It's known as "last-hired, first-fired.") This means that a school system jettisons teachers in each subject area or grade with the fewest years of service. The process is negotiated between districts and their teachers' unions, which strongly support members' seniority rights. Teacher quality, however, doesn't factor into the equation. A junior teacher will be laid off before a senior one no matter his or her relative successes in the classroom. In other words, the standard layoff process overlooks whether districts are preserving their best talent. 

But there's yet another problem with the process, as education finance expert Marguerite Roza outlined in a paper published in February. Because senior teachers are paid more than junior ones, "cutting the most junior personnel means reducing the workforce by larger percentages than implied by budget cuts," meaning "seniority-based layoffs exacerbate job loss." According to Roza's data, if a district is required to cut 5 percent of its salary expenditures, under a "last-hired, first-fired" plan, 7.5 percent of all personnel would have to be let go; under a plan that included cuts across all salary levels, only 5 percent of the total work force would collect pink slips. Roza concludes that these numbers should compel districts to reconsider how they lay people off:

[The current plan] means that schools will be left with even fewer employees to do the job. Kids will see their classes get even bigger, and even more programs will be cut than would be otherwise. And ... our national unemployment rates will rise even faster than the budget cuts would suggest. We should all worry.

In an ideal world, schools wouldn't face pressure to reduce salary expenditures and could go about crafting the best teaching staffs possible in economic peace. But, if budgets demand it, as they now do, how should districts lay off teachers? According to their relative quality in the classroom. The idea is unpopular with union leaders, and many of their members, who are accustomed to having seniority treated as sacred. But, particularly in the current economic climate, we can't afford to do anything but retain those with the greatest skills, whether they've served five years or 20. Indeed, meeting budget goals doesn't need to be be separate from promoting teacher quality. If the best teachers are exclusively the most senior in a school district, then a quality-based layoff plan would be no worse numbers-wise than a seniority-based one. But, if the best teachers are mixed in among those of all experience levels, a quality-based process could at once keep more people on a district's payroll and boost the excellence of its teaching force. (To be sure, as with the current system, attention would have to be paid to making sure there are appropriate numbers of teachers working in all subject areas and grades.)

To achieve this, districts would, of course, have to fight battles over firing processes--which are notoriously costly and convoluted, but protected by unions--and instituting better teacher evaluation systems. These are sticky situations that can't be summed up easily in a short blog post. But, ultimately, the disarray boils down to the fact that, when considering whom to keep in classrooms, districts (and unions) must start placing front and center the simple question, "Who's best for the students?"

--Seyward Darby