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Ruling on D.C. Teacher Layoffs Raises Broader Issues

A Washington superior court judge has backed Chancellor Michelle Rhee in a dispute with the Washington Teachers' Union over layoffs. The union sought a preliminary injunction that would essentially have required Rhee to reinstate teachers who were laid off supposedly due to budget cuts while other legal claims worked their way through the District of Columbia school system.

In essence, the union said that Rhee hired hundreds of young teachers over the summer, more than the district could pay for, thus forcing a later need to make cuts. Because of a series of administrative rulings in the late 1990s, layoffs in D.C. are done not only by seniority but also by performance. In this case, principals laid off many veteran teachers. That precipitated protests, allegations from the WTU that Rhee was bypassing termination procedures in the contract, and hearings with the D.C. Council.

Rhee's staff disputed the charges, although there has been much back and forth between her staffers and the council about when the district was aware of the upcoming budget crunch.

The reductions-in-force, as they are called in contract legalese, have been cited as one reason that a new collective bargaining pact in D.C. is still languishing. (Even U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has gotten in on the action by saying that the contract situation has gone on for far too long.)

Bill Turque at The Washington Post has most of the details you'll need. But for our purposes, let's leave aside the he-said-she-said aspect of this mess to consider the larger implications.

Although whether or not the RIF was appropriate is the primary issue here, a secondary subtext concerns how teachers were laid off and whether building principals, who were charged with the cuts, made fair, accurate, and defensible decisions. (D.C. is one of only a handful of districts that perform RIFs by anything other than strict seniority.)

Lately, there has been much discussion from the federal government, the Gates Foundation, and others about moving from systems in which proxies for effectiveness, like seniority and credentials, are replaced by evaluations and measures that attempt to gauge teacher effectiveness in much more sophisticated ways. Presumably, that would make decisions such as RIFs and terminations more in alignment with what students need, i.e., keeping the most effective teachers.

But as this D.C. situation points out, that is really only going to work if principals or evaluators are highly trained to use these evaluation instruments; if unions agree that principals (or whoever makes evaluations and consequential decisions resulting from those evaluations) are doing a fair job; and finally, that both parties view this system as an appropriate procedure for handling layoffs and terminations and that there are clear procedures for doing so in place.

None of those things, I suspect, will come easily, cheaply, or without a fair share of legal wrangling. In other words, I think it's possible that this D.C. lawsuit is only the tip of the iceberg as districts attempt to move to performance-based teacher-quality systems.

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