Teacher seniority rules, job security threatened amid budget cuts

By Oliver Staley
Bloomberg News / March 27, 2011

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NEW YORK — Public school teachers are facing the biggest challenge to their job security in more than half a century as politicians target seniority rules that make the last hired the first fired when jobs are cut.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican; Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat; and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, are among officials pushing for changes in laws in coming months to let them fire underperforming teachers.

As budget cuts threaten the jobs of thousands of school employees, officials are demanding the right to keep the most talented, even if they are the least experienced. The proposed changes may undercut the power of teachers’ unions. They intensify the debate on how to judge instructor effectiveness as US students lag behind international peers. As officials cut education budgets, they should focus on what is best for children, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

“Layoffs based only on seniority don’t help kids,’’ Duncan said. “We have to minimize the negative impact on students.’’

In 14 states, including New York, California, and New Jersey, districts can consider only seniority when dismissing teachers, and they are home to 40 percent of public school instructors, according to a report by the New Teacher Project, a New York organization founded in 1997 by Michelle Rhee, Washington’s former schools chancellor.

Even as states cut billions from their budgets, federal officials and executives from Microsoft chairman Bill Gates to Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke are lamenting the damage caused by education reductions.

In New York, Bloomberg is pushing the Legislature to pass a law eliminating the “last-in, first-out’’ policy, saying that as many as 4,666, or 6 percent, of the city’s teachers may be fired. In New Jersey, Christie proposed eliminating seniority rules for teachers at a town hall meeting Sept. 28. And in California, a Senate bill was introduced Feb. 15 that would replace seniority with a system based on several factors including student performance.

Superintendents contend that seniority rules force them to retain incompetent teachers instead of young talent.

Eliminating last-in, first-out rules won’t mean dramatic improvements, said David Abbott, executive director of the Cleveland-based George Gund Foundation, which supports education initiatives. Education needs innovation, he said.

“There’s too much emphasis placed on that issue as a silver bullet,’’ Abbott said. “We say, ‘If we can just get rid of this work rule, of this industrial workforce mentality, that will solve our problem.’ No, it won’t.’’