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Why LIFO Is Needed in Teacher Layoffs

There are two sides to every issue in education. I have reference now to the growing debate over seniority as the basis for determining which teachers should receive pink slips ("California's pink-slip shuffle," Los Angeles Times, Dec. 16).

The argument getting the most attention is that when principals are forced by law to lay off teachers in order of their years of service, rather than by their effectiveness, students invariably suffer. This practice is known as LIFO, which stands for "last in, first out." Sometimes that is true, but not always. I've written before about how even exemplary teachers can be harassed by their principal to the point that they finally request a transfer ("Principal's War Leads to a Teacher Exodus," The New York Times, Jan. 28, 2004). When that happens - and it does - students are shortchanged. But taxpayers don't hear this side of the debate.

Critics will assert that such cases are aberrations. But how do they know? To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a study addressing the matter. Although the National Council on Teacher Quality published a paper in Feb. 2010 that looked at the overall pros and cons of the issue, it did not specifically report on principal abuses ("Teacher Layoffs: Rethinking 'Last-Hired, First-Fired' Policies"). As a result, taxpayers rely on media reports of rubber rooms, where teachers who have been charged with a variety of complaints about their performance continue to receive full pay and benefits for years. I don't defend this practice, but on the other hand if teachers were subject to layoffs solely on the basis of their principal's decision, favoritism would reign. The reason that seniority exists is to avoid the abuses that took place in this country when administrators were able to hire and fire whomever they wanted at will.

Critics will also maintain that I exaggerate the likelihood that principals will fire the best teachers. After all, this would be a violation of their duty to keep highly effective teachers in the classroom. But not all principals have principles. They don't like teachers who stand up to them ("A Bully on the Wrong Side of the Principal's Desk," The New York Times, Dec. 21, 2005). As a result, without seniority, these teachers would be rendered mute or left defenseless.

Students have the right to the best education possible. But teachers also have the right to protection against arbitrary and capricious acts by principals. Until I see more convincing evidence to the contrary, I think LIFO has merit.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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