It isn’t hard for New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg to grab the attention of both the nation’s school-reform movement and the teachers’ unions. After all, the Big Apple mayor — with the help of former schools chancellor Joel Klein and Klein’s successor, Cathy Black — has spent the past decade overhauling the country’s largest school system with such moves as shutting down more than 100 pervasive dropout factories, embracing concepts such as charter schools, and giving school principals the ability to remove laggard teachers from city classrooms.
So Bloomberg’s announcement late last month that in the event of another round of state subsidy cuts (which is likely), he would have to lay off as many as 21,000 of the city’s 80,000 teachers, garnered attention — and not only because of the size of the possible reduction in force. Bloomberg’s threat (from which he’s backpedaled slightly) was the latest flashpoint in the much wider battle between school reformers and the nation’s teachers’ unions over the array of lucrative seniority-based privileges that have made teaching the best-compensated profession in the public sector.
Since the 1960s, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have used their massive campaign war chests — they spent some $59.3 million in the 2009–10 election cycle alone — and collective-bargaining power to insulate teachers from the kinds of performance management found in the private sector. For Baby Boomers, who account for 26 percent of the nation’s teachers, the deals are especially sweet. A 20-year veteran can earn a base salary of $54,170 for nine months of work (and more with an advanced degree), near-lifetime employment in the form of tenure (which teachers in all but a few states earn within just three years), and a defined-benefit pension that can be worth $2 million or more over a lifetime.
The best perk of all comes in the form of reverse-seniority (or last hired–first fired) rules — long ago ditched by most of the private sector — which allow veteran teachers to keep their jobs at the expense of younger instructors regardless of their classroom performance or compensation. Such an approach was easy to adopt thanks to the fourfold increase in education spending (in constant 2007–08 dollars) between the 1959–60 and 2007–08 school years.
But now, state governments and school districts, beset by the nation’s economic malaise, the end of $103 billion in federal stimulus and bailout spending, and $1.4 trillion in pension deficits and unfunded health-care costs for retired teachers, must trim their teaching staffs. Particularly for the nation’s big-city districts — which are home to the largest concentration of dropout factories and are the leading centers for school-reform efforts — it means tossing out the very energetic yet less senior teachers they need to improve student achievement and end the culture of mediocrity. The need for more rational approaches to budget-cutting and school spending is finally giving school reformers the opportunity to push for the end of reverse-seniority layoff rules.
Washington, D.C.’s school district became the first in the nation to abandon reverse seniority in 2009 when then-chancellor Michelle Rhee laid off 266 teachers (including many longtime instructors) as part of a budget-cutting effort. The district successfully forced the AFT to ditch reverse seniority altogether in its latest contract. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Unified School District has abandoned the use of reverse seniority in 45 schools that serve its poorest students; it moved to do as part of a settlement of a suit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union over the impact of layoffs on student achievement at three schools. LAUSD is also lobbying California state officials to abolish the state law requiring the use of reverse seniority.