US & World

In Teacher Layoffs, Seniority Rules. But Should It?

Christa Krohn, a math teacher in the Cleveland school district, was laid off the same year she was recruited to work in an innovative science-focused school.
Christa Krohn, a math teacher in the Cleveland school district, was laid off the same year she was recruited to work in an innovative science-focused school.
Larry Abramson/NPR

Like many districts nationwide, Cleveland Schools CEO Eugene Sanders is facing a monster $54 million spending gap and has to cut more than 500 teachers. But he's bound by a law to cut the last hired first. While the Cleveland Teachers Union supports this rule, Sanders and others find it frustrating -- and say it makes the process more painful.

School districts around the country are planning massive layoffs as they struggle to bridge big budget deficits.

And as they select which teachers go and which ones stay, many can only use one factor as their guide: seniority. Many districts will have to cast out effective teachers, because local contracts and even state laws require it.

Like many of his counterparts around the country, Cleveland Schools CEO Eugene Sanders is facing a monster $54 million spending gap.

According to Sanders, there's no room left to trim, and he may have to shed more than 500 teachers. He says that when he sent out pink slips earlier this year, he had no flexibility.

"The last hired are the first ones to go without regard to productivity, efficiency, accountability, performance or outcomes," Sanders says.

'You Just Don't Do That To People'

That means some schools face a complete staff turnover.

MC2 STEM High School, with its freshman campus located on the lakeshore at the Great Lakes Science Center, is only two years old. It has attracted lots of teachers new to the Cleveland school district.

"This is my first year in the district, and because of layoffs my last," says Christa Krohn, one of those perky, vivacious teachers every parent wants for their child.

She's actually been teaching math for eight years total, but her service in other districts does not count here. The RIF is all the more painful, because she and other promising teachers were specially recruited to work in an innovative science-focused school, Cleveland's best hope to improve student performance.

"When you recruit someone and [then] you pink slip them, it's just not right. You just don't do that to people," Krohn says.

Can't Touch Seniority

Principal Jeff McClellan laboriously hammered out a special memorandum of understanding with the Cleveland Teachers Union, so that he could interview and hire the staff he wanted. Teachers agreed to work all summer in this year-round school. But he couldn't touch seniority, because it is written into state law. Now, all but two of his 12 teachers will be canned.

"The unfortunate thing is we've invested on average about 430 to 440 hours of professional development around our model," McClellan says. "Even people who are interested that come in aren't necessarily going to have had that kind of training upfront."

Ohio is one of 15 states where, by law, seniority rules the day when layoffs are necessary. Many local contracts help perpetuate the decades old love affair with seniority. Why give absolute preference to teachers who have simply stayed in one district for longer?

David Quolke, president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, says experience should be valued.

"There's the notion that somehow experience is a bad thing," he says. "It's one of the few professions [where] we kind of talk about it as being a bad thing."

Many states are starting to revamp their systems for evaluating teachers, so that student progress will play a bigger role. But these changes won't affect seniority-based layoffs, which don't take evaluations into account.

And Quolke says there is a good reason to stick with seniority. Without an objective criterion for judging teachers, he says the game would be totally rigged in favor of younger, less expensive teachers.

"An individual administrator district, certainly when you're facing tough economic times, is going to say, 'By the way Quolke, your salary is $20,000 more and I think the $20,000-less teacher is better quality,'" he says.

That's largely the position of the national teachers unions.

Makes The Process More Painful

With teacher layoffs unavoidable in countless districts, the seniority question will be front and center in the coming weeks, as final budget totals determine how many people must go. Some research indicates that the primacy of seniority is making this whole process much more painful.

Marguerite Roza of the University of Washington says that when districts have to RIF younger, cheaper employees, they have to get rid of more teachers to balance their budgets.

"So you have to layoff more people in order to close a targeted gap than if you were to layoff neutral to salary," she says.

Roza also says high-poverty schools feel the biggest impact from seniority-based layoffs, because those schools tend to have the least experienced teachers.

A coalition of education groups is urging Congress to include an anti-seniority provision in a proposed federal program to save teachers' jobs.

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