Goodbye to “first in, last out”? Change is in the air

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger

That we live in tough economic times is something we hear and read every day. What people once hesitated to call a recession — for even the act of naming it tends to erode consumer confidence further — is now being called “the Great Recession.” State revenues are not expected to recover before 2014 or 2015, meaning that budget cuts will be with us for the foreseeable future. And state budget cuts almost always involve education, for spending on education is typically 40-50 percent of a state’s total expenditures. In California, between 52 and 55 percent of the State General Fund Budget is spent on K-12 and higher education in any given year.

Thus, we are now seeing a flurry of stories about teachers being laid off across the country. In many states, districts are required to inform teachers of their employment status for the next academic year by either March 15th or April 15th.  Illinois expects to see 20,000 teachers laid off across the state, with nearly 4,000 employees cut from the Chicago Public Schools alone. And pink slips are aplenty around the nation: in California, for instance, 26,000 teachers received them this year, up from 16,000 in 2009.

Traditionally, teacher layoffs have worked according to the seniority principle: if you were the first teacher hired, you’d be the last laid off. Or, conversely, if you’re the most recent hire, you’ll also be the first to go.

Politicians, policymakers and even teachers themselves are now questioning the concept of seniority. Does it really make sense, they ask, to let enthusiastic young teachers go — especially when their students are outperforming the students of more senior teachers in the same school — simply because they were the last in the door?

Seniority is written into most teacher contracts, but that might be about to change. In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke about seniority yesterday at a Los Angeles middle school that last year lost more than half of its teaching staff because most were recent hires. The Associated Press had this report on Schwarzenegger’s speech:  “‘Several teachers of the year have gotten pink slips. How can that happen if they are award-winning teachers?’ the governor told an auditorium full of cheering children. ‘It is very important we change the system.'”

A proposed law in California — Senate Bill 955, sponsored by State Senator Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) — would do away with seniority as a consideration when layoffs become necessary. The California Teachers Association is strongly opposed to the bill, which is set for a hearing in the Senate Education Committee today.

Elsewhere in the nation, a similar movement to ignore seniority when laying off teachers is afoot. In Washington, D.C., a tentative agreement between Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and the Washington Teachers’ Union would significantly reduce the role played by seniority in such decisions. The main factor would instead be a teacher’s evaluation from the previous year.

In New York City, a proposed state bill would give principals discretion about which teachers to lay off. In a widely quoted statement, NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said, “Experience matters, but it cannot be the sole or even principal factor considered in layoff decisions. … We must be able to take into account each individual’s track record of success.”

While teachers’ union invariably oppose such changes, teachers themselves aren’t always united — in part because younger teachers don’t see why they should automatically be laid off when there’s evidence they are working harder and achieving better student results than some of the more senior colleagues.

Look for some groundbreaking changes in the near future about how teachers are laid off. “First in, last out” might itself soon be out the window.

Justin Snider