In Our View: Disregard Seniority

When schools have to lay off teachers, ability and value should matter most

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Countless owners of downsized businesses throughout Washington state can recall the “been there, done that” horror of reducing a work force.

The process begins with sadness, then surrender, and proceeds to the painful task of assigning value to each position. Business owners and personnel directors keep reminding themselves that they’re talking about jobs, but they can’t escape the fact that they’re talking about people. In the midst of the heartache, it all comes down to a purely business decision: Keep the best, lay off much of the rest.

That’s not the way it works in Washington’s public schools, where collective bargaining contracts typically dictate laying off teachers according to seniority. Usually, a teacher’s ability or value doesn’t matter. A group called Excellent Schools Now wants to change that awkward system, and the intent is reflected in Senate Bill 5399, sponsored by Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina. If passed, the bill would require the use of teacher evaluations in determining layoffs. A companion bill is expected soon in the House.

This is an excellent proposal and deserves support of all legislators. The list of co-sponsors shows no lawmaker from Clark County, but they are urged to recognize the merit of this proposal. Particularly, state Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, is encouraged to help lead the effort as a member of the Education Committee.

Students, parents, taxpayers and teachers deserve to have the best teachers retained in schools. And sometimes, those good-to-great teachers aren’t the most experienced.

Of course, officials with the teachers union (the Washington Education Association) detest such an approach. They believe the youngest teachers should be first to lose their jobs, regardless of value or ability. But in the words of Dan Goldhaber at the University of Washington’s Center for Education Data and Research, “If your bottom line is student achievement, (determining layoffs based on seniority) is not the best system.”

Even if the Legislature changes the system this year, don’t expect any meaningful impact in the short term. Peter Callaghan of The News Tribune in Tacoma recently reported two reasons that the status quo will survive for awhile. First, the change would apply only to future contracts. Second, the current system of teacher evaluations is a work in progress. As Callaghan wrote: “Last session’s Senate Bill 6696 requires districts to create four-tier evaluation systems (as opposed to the more-common satisfactory/unsatisfactory systems). And they must include a new batch of factors including student test scores. But even a handful of pilot evaluation projects won’t be completed until the end of next school year. And all districts aren’t required to have new systems in place until the 2013-14 school year.”

Here is a component of seniority-based layoffs that often is overlooked. Because older, higher-paid teachers are protected, more teaching positions wind up being eliminated, which penalizes students. Furthermore, there’s nothing to stop sheer bad luck from intervening and, for example, resulting in the layoffs of every teacher in a department at a particular school.

Here’s another factor that often flies under the radar: Low-income schools often are impacted more by seniority-based teacher layoffs because they have more young teachers. The Center for American Progress cites a Los Angeles Times report that says among 2,700 layoffs there, “nearly one in 10 teachers in South Los Angeles schools was laid off, nearly twice the rate in other areas.”

It might take several years to get this system changed, but it makes no sense to get rid of good or great teachers simply because they lack experience. That’s a warped system of priorities.