U.S. 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’re the least experienced.
The proposed changes may undercut the power of teachers’ unions. They intensify the debate on how to judge instructor’s effectiveness as U.S. students lag behind international peers. As officials cut education budgets, they should focus on what is best for children, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.
“Layoffs based only on seniority don’t help kids,” Duncan said in a conference call with reporters March 3. “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 published last month by The New Teacher Project, a New York organization founded in 1997 by Michelle Rhee, Washington’s former schools chancellor.
Cutting the Future
Even as states cut billions from their budgets, federal officials and executives from Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke are lamenting the damage caused by education reductions.
“No economy can succeed without a high-quality workforce, particularly in an age of globalization and technical change,” Bernanke said in a speech March 2. “Cost-effective K-12 and postsecondary schooling are crucial.”
In New York, Bloomberg is pushing the Legislature to pass a law eliminating the “last-in, first-out” policy, saying 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 argue seniority rules force them to retain incompetent teachers instead of young talent.
Changing the system would be a “pretty substantial boost” to student performance, said Chester Finn Jr., who was assistant secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan from 1985 to 1988. He is president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit research group focused on improving K-12 education.
“Just as some schools are dropout factories, there are teachers that are ignorance factories,” Finn said in a telephone interview. “You’re going to have to let some people go, so why not get rid of the people who aren’t getting the job done?”
While seniority isn’t the “end-all and be-all,” mayors and superintendents don’t want any system at all, said Randi Weingarten, president of the Washington-based American Federation of Teachers, which has 1.5 million members.
“They just want individual principals to make decisions based on who their favorites are,” Weingarten said in a telephone interview March 4. “Instead of trying to figure out who to work with and how to deal with a terrible budget, they’re trying to attack teachers and attack people who made an investment and commitment to this profession before it was cool.”
The recession that began in 2008 and the resulting budget crises devastated teacher employment. About 172,000 U.S. public-education jobs, including those of teachers and clerical workers, have been eliminated since September 2008, according to John See, an American Federation of Teachers spokesman. In the past 12 months, 99,800 have disappeared, he said, citing federal labor statistics.
Preserving seniority prevents cronyism, said Steve Wollmer, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, which represents 200,000 current and retired teachers.
“Administrators who are pressed to save money may become tempted to target their veteran teachers” who earn more, he said.
Abolishing seniority is a “major threat” to teachers unions, said Grover Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Since they acquired the rights to bargain, surely this is the biggest challenge they’ve faced.”
While teachers’ professional organizations have existed since the National Education Association’s founding in 1857, seniority rules were adopted gradually, following their development in industrial unions, said Marjorie Murphy, a history professor at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. In 1909, New Jersey adopted the first statewide employment protections, in part to keep women from being dismissed after marrying, said Rebecca Givan, an assistant professor of collective bargaining at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York.
The last time teachers unions were under a similar threat was in the late 1940s, when “red scare” laws banned strikes from public service workers, Murphy said.
No Silver Bullet
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.”
In New Jersey, which had 112,933 teachers in the 2009-10 school year, Christie is seeking to make it easier to fire the ineffective and to overhaul tenure laws. Under his plan, student performance would become the prime factor in tenure, promotions and firing in the event of budget cuts.
Districts trimmed payrolls for the current school year after Christie cut state aid by $820 million. New Jersey relies on the nation’s highest property taxes, an average $7,281, to fund education. Christie enacted a 2 percent cap on growth of the tax as of Jan. 1, leaving the teachers union and some educators to warn a second round of staff cuts may be coming.
In New York, Bloomberg said he needed to cut teaching jobs to close a $2.4 billion deficit in a $65.6 billion budget he proposed Feb. 17. Bloomberg called upon the Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo to empower him to determine whom to fire.
A bill Bloomberg supports passed the Republican-dominated Senate March 1. Cuomo intends to push his own that doesn’t eliminate seniority.
“The bottom line is, we need an alternative,” said Josh Vlasto, a Cuomo spokesman. Once New York has an objective evaluation system, last-in, first-out can be replaced, he said.
Bloomberg’s threat to fire 4,666 teachers is a “political ploy,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the New York United Federation of Teachers, in an interview. “Even the governor says they’re unnecessary,” he said.
“Experience matters,” said Mulgrew, who taught high school English and film studies for 13 years. “Mike Bloomberg ran for a third term saying ‘experience counts.’ Well, we have class sizes exploding, and we need all the experience we can keep.”
The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
In Los Angeles, Villariagosa, a former union organizer, favors performance-based criteria, according to Sarah Hamilton, his spokeswoman.
California state Senator Bob Huff, a Republican from the Los Angeles suburb of Diamond Bar, introduced a bill Feb. 15 that would replace seniority with a system that weighs factors including student performance. Huff’s bill is not scheduled for a vote, nor has it been assigned to a committee.
“You won’t find the luxury of seniority protection in the private sector and we shouldn’t apply such an ineffective policy to an important profession like teaching,” Huff, 57, said in a written statement.
Eliminating seniority will hurt teachers and children, said Jennifer Schenk, 38, a sixth-grade counselor in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where collective bargaining by public employees is under attack by Governor Scott Walker.
“Without seniority protections we’d all be on an even playing field, allowing schools to fire higher-paid teachers with more experience,” said Schenk as she stood in Madison on March 4 to protest the proposed changes. “That would cause the quality of instruction to go down.”