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Should Seniority Count in Layoffs?

Until recently, seniority was paramount in determining which teachers were laid off during a reduction in force.  The policy was based on the belief that it was the most objective way.  But in Vergara v. California, the plaintiffs maintain that this approach prevents school districts "from providing an effective education to all of their students, as guaranteed by the California Constitution" ("Teacher Tenure Put to the Test in California Lawsuit," The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 15).

The case is being cited by reformers as long overdue.  They point to teachers who are ineffective in the classroom but hold onto their positions solely because of their seniority.  It plays well among taxpayers who believe that bad teachers are the cause of the underperformance of students in this country.  Instead of seniority, they want layoff criteria to be left to district discretion.

Let's examine the facts. At one extreme, six states require that seniority is the sole factor.  At the other extreme, two states say seniority can't be considered at all. In between are states where seniority can be considered among other factors. I recognize that seniority is sometimes used to protect teachers who no longer belong in the classroom for one reason or another.  But eliminating it completely can result in even stellar teachers being dismissed for reasons that have nothing to do with their performance in the classroom.  For example, cash-strapped districts might layoff the most veteran teachers because they are earning the highest salaries.

I think the fairest policy requires that districts make seniority one consideration among others, just as test scores are. (Let's not forget that five years ago no state even took into account performance criteria.)  The debate should be over the weight given to each factor.  I admit that it's impossible to ever satisfy all stakeholders about this controversial issue.  But if the plaintiffs prevail in the Vergara suit, it would undermine teacher morale in ways that laypersons cannot possibly understand.  Teachers are already under enormous pressure.  Stripping them of job protections would be the final straw.

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

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