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With layoffs coming, it's time to stand up for seniority

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With many school districts facing budget shortfalls, teachers, including those in Philadelphia, will likely face layoffs.

The budget crunch coincides with a growing attack on teacher tenure and seniority as the governing principle for teacher assignment and layoffs. Even Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, and long time teacher union organizer and staffer, has joined the chorus calling for “peformance” as the “driver” in decisions around these issues. And former Washington, D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee has made ending tenure and eliminating seniority central agenda points of her “Students First” campaign.

Much of the current debate over tenure ignores the many changes that unions have embraced to address some of the criticism of tenure and seniority based practices.   Many unions, including the PFT, have agreed to changes in teacher assignment and transfers that give schools more flexibility and control over staffing. Unions, again including PFT, have also agreed to changes in teacher evaluation and made it easier to remove ineffective teachers. Thus, at its worst, the critics of tenure are attacking a straw man that bares little resemblance to current practice.

But when it comes to layoffs, we can expect the unions to fight for the principle of last hired, first fired, and rightfully so. Without this principle, teachers have no job security. Older teachers at the top of the pay scale in a climate of budget austerity will be targeted for layoffs. New teachers at the bottom of the scale will be more likely to be retained. Teachers who are outspoken can expect to go, while those who are cronies of the principal will get to stay. Women, who have a nasty habit of getting pregnant, will be more likely to go than men. These are some of the historic reasons the trade union movement has always championed the seniority principle. It is no different in education. 

Of course the District and the opponents of seniority will tell us that they are “for children” and want to keep the best teachers in the classroom. What they really want to do is render the unions impotent, pit teachers against each other, and save money at the expense of their workers.

Children will not benefit from a teaching staff that would be in all likelihood less experienced. Here in Philadelphia the highest proportion of inexperienced teachers is in the lowest performing schools, mostly in poor African American and Latino neighborhoods. While obviously not every experienced teacher is an effective teacher, research does show that experience is an important predictor of teaching success.   We should be about retaining experienced teachers. The attacks on tenure and seniority will have just the opposite effect.

As teacher unionists, we should be about fighting the layoffs which will increase class size and undo some of the positive gains in student achievement over the last decade. But if they come, and it seems certain they will, we should defend the seniority principle and demand that no new hires, including Teach for America and Teaching Fellows, are made until every displaced teacher is recalled.

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