Teacher seniority in jeopardy

Supporters say ending ‘last in, first out’ layoffs saves good teachers; critics call it ‘election-year gimmick’



By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer


Does tenure have an effect on retaining effective teachers? A new bill that would change how school districts lay off teachers passed the Minnesota Senate last week. MSR spoke with supporters and critics of the legislation.

Proponents of the bill say it will end the “last in, first out” (LIFO) system in which teacher layoffs are based on length of service, or seniority. In other words, the last teacher hired has to be the first teacher fired, whether they are effective or not.

Minnesota is one of 12 states left in the country that still uses this system, says StudentsFirst, a national nonprofit organization. “The problem right now is that we can’t identify who the effective teachers are and [who] the ineffective teachers are,” notes Legislative Affairs Vice President Tim Melton. His organization has advocated the elimination of LIFO in seven states.

“When we look at layoffs, why would you get rid of the teacher who is one of the best because they have one day less seniority in the school? We have to make sure that we have quality teachers in the classroom, and effective leaders [principals] in the building,” continues Melton.

“Our three main areas of focus is teacher quality, empower[ing] parents, and fiscal accountability,” adds StudentsFirst State Director Jeri Powell. “StudentsFirst is fully in support of this bill. We had a petition with over 400 of our members signed and presented to senators and representatives on the education committee. We are hopeful that the governor will support it.”

However, opponents of the bill argue that it will hurt rather than help.

It is “an election-year gimmick” by the Republican-majority state legislature, says Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Minneapolis), who believes Gov. Mark Dayton will veto the bill. “I opposed it.”

Under current law, school districts and teachers can negotiate their own local layoffs process, say Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union. The new Minnesota teacher seniority bill “does nothing to address the real challenges facing our schools,” said President Tom Dooher in a prepared statement. “It will make it easier for districts to shed seasoned teachers for their less-experienced, less-expensive colleagues.”

When asked what effect, if any, the bill will have on Black teachers, who often don’t have high seniority in school districts, “These bills would create a ranking system within a school that could easily be manipulated to discriminate against the teachers who are the strongest voices for change,” said Dooher in an email response to the MSR last week.

Most teachers’ unions are against such bills such as the recently passed Minnesota legislation, counters Melton. “Education is one of the hardest things out there to change. It’s easy to protect the status quo. It’s hard to want changes,” he points out.

Retired school teacher Odessa Bond of St. Paul says she supports “a good way of fairly evaluating teachers, based on their skill and their ability to teach children,” but expressed concern that without teacher tenure, “[Schools] can dismiss them for anything — if they don’t like your hair.”

Bond says her daughter has been a public school teacher in Maryland for 19 years. “People from the state [education] department come and evaluate her teaching three times a year, every other year,” she points out. “They tell [teachers] what they don’t like and what you have to improve. And if you don’t improve, they give you another year but they work closely with you in whatever it is that you are doing wrong. Then if you don’t improve, they will terminate you at the end of the [school] year.”

She says, however, in Minnesota most teachers of color — Blacks, Asians and immigrants — always have been last hired and first out. Therefore, Bond believes the bill “won’t impact us at all.”

Melton’s organization also wants to see better evaluation methods for teachers to be devised and used by principals “in making sure that effectiveness is the number-one criteria in keeping teachers in the classroom.”

Powell adds that StudentsFirst also support other educational reforms, including giving parents more decision-making power “in turning their school around” and “a school rating bill that enhances transparency, and allows the public to see how well the school is doing by a simple A through F scale,” she surmises.

“We are advocating for a bill to hold charter schools very accountable,” says Melton. “The worst ones should be closed and the best ones [should] be allowed to expand, based on performance.”

Bond, who has taught in both public and charter schools, wants good teachers and an equitable evaluation system for all teachers, regardless of race. “I think once you get in, and you are a good teacher, you will stay,” she says.


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.