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.
The foremost battleground is in New York City, where Bloomberg has been the loudest proponent of ditching reverse seniority. Last year, amid the prospect of having to lay off 8,500 recent hires, the mayor and then-chancellor Klein unsuccessfully pushed for passage of a state law that would end the policy. This year, with the possibility of having to lay off 70 percent of the 30,000 teachers the city has hired within the past decade, Bloomberg is making the same request again — and has asked the Empire State’s newly elected governor, Andrew Cuomo, to endorse the move.
Of course, the NEA and AFT are doing all they can to preserve their hard-won ability to protect veteran teachers from the kind of economic dislocations that have become a way of life in the private sector. Last year, the unions defeated efforts by reformers to require states and districts to abandon reverse-seniority rules as a condition of receiving $10 billion in federal aid slated for staving off possible layoffs.
The AFT in particular is spoiling to battle with Bloomberg; the union’s New York City local was once run by current AFT president Randi Weingarten. Weingarten won a 15 percent across-the-board pay raise for teachers, but spent the rest of her tenure getting steamrolled by Bloomberg as he won control of the school district, proceeded to authorize charters, and won concessions to remove laggard teachers. Declaresher tough-talking successor Michael Mulgrew to the New York Daily News: “[Bloomberg is] going out and creating fear when we know at this point that every layoff is hurting children.”
This isn’t exactly so. Thanks to the emergence of value-added assessment, which allows for the measurement of student test-score performance (and teacher performance in turn), and the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability measures, states and districts can now assess the quality of teaching staffs. The results show that there is little correlation between seniority and student achievement. On average, a teacher is no more successful in improving student achievement after 25 years than after four years, according to a report by Dan Goldhaber and Michael Hansen of the Center for Reinventing Public Education.
Essentially, handing walking papers to a laggard veteran teacher makes better sense than letting go of a more talented but less senior instructor. As the Los Angeles Times noted last year in its series on teacher quality, student performance at one LAUSD school, John H. Liechty Middle School, was short-circuited after the district laid off 17 less senior teachers who were among the best in the district. Among the 2,700 teachers laid off by LAUSD were 190 who ranked in the top fifth of instructors in improving student achievement. Reverse seniority is a bad idea financially as well, because to achieve any given level of savings, a district has to lay off a higher number of less-senior teachers than it would senior teachers, who are paid more.
Meanwhile, NEA and AFT leaders are facing dissension from the younger teachers who are disadvantaged by reverse seniority. Already frustrated with the unwillingness of the unions to embrace a performance-oriented vision of teaching, junior teachers see reverse seniority as evidence that union leaders are more interested in protecting Baby Boomers than in advancing the interests of all teachers (not to mention students).
In New York City, the AFT has found itself struggling to respond to the declarations of Educators 4 Excellence, a group of younger teachers spurred on by Bloomberg to oppose reverse-seniority rules. Surprisingly enough, they are being joined by veteran teachers fed up with working with less talented colleagues. Seventy-five percent of both newly minted and long-tenured teachers agree that layoffs should be based on performance, according to a survey conducted last year by the New Teacher Project, a school-reform nonprofit.
With less experienced teachers now making up the majority of America’s teaching corps, reverse-seniority rules may soon be as rare in education as they are in corporate America.
— RiShawn Biddle, the editor of Dropout Nation, is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era.