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Teacher Layoff Numbers Overstated? Survey Suggests 'Yes'

A new survey attempts to shed light on the number of teacher layoffs around the country—and suggests that the number of educators sent packing may not be as bad as some say.

The survey of 74 large urban school districts in 42 states found that school systems reported laying off 2.5 percent of their teachers.

The survey was conducted by the National Council on Teacher Quality, in Washington. While NCTQ, which collected information from the past two years, acknowledges that the survey isn't a representative sample, it believes it's a telling one, given that "it's usually the large urbans who feel the pain of financial cuts most acutely."

The proportion of laid-off teachers fell to 1.5 percent when California districts, which have been battered by job cuts, were excluded. Roughly half the districts surveyed reported no layoffs.

NCTQ argues that while districts may be feeling financial pain, some of the layoffs can be explained by a "hiring spree in public education over the past decade."

So how are districts making cuts, if they're not laying off teachers? Of 54 school systems that responded to a series of questions, a majority said they laid off central-office staff this year and last year, or dismissed teachers without proper certification. Many said they tapped federal "Edujobs" funding. A smaller number, 16, said they froze teachers' step salary increases, while 22 froze or reduced their cost-of-living adjustments.

My question about the survey is whether the 2.5 percent figure is low-balling the impact of budget cuts on districts. The reason: It counts only job losses through layoffs, and not the jobs that have vanished in schools because of attrition—basically, positions lost to retirements or transfers, which districts simply choose not to fill for budgetary reasons. One part of the NCTQ survey speaks to this issue, saying that 42 of the 54 districts that responded said they cut jobs through attrition in 2011-12, but that number isn't included in the 2.5 percent.

From a district's standpoint—not to mention the community's point of view—a teaching job lost through attrition is still a job lost. See my story from earlier this fall on the problems created in a pair of Texas districts, one large, one small, that were forced to make personnel cuts, many of them through attrition, largely because of state reductions in K-12 funding.

While the 2.5 percent figure does not account for the impact of attrition, it still provides context for ongoing debates about cuts to school budgets and their impact on school employees, NCTQ's president, Kate Walsh, told me.

A certain amount of attrition occurs every year in districts, she said, and so lumping those numbers along with layoffs wouldn't make sense "without historical context."

"We were trying to get at a very simple issue," Walsh said, meaning whether actual layoffs in districts were as dire as some of the public projections. "It's sort of a narrow question, but an important one."

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