“Keep Our Educators Working Act” Should Support Smarter Layoff Policies

NEW YORK, NY—The “Keep Our Educators Working Act” proposes to provide $23 billion in federal funding to help states fight a looming wave of teacher layoffs due to deep budget cuts nationwide. Saving teachers' jobs’ is a laudable goal, but even more important is minimizing the impact of the recession on America’s students.

Unfortunately, teacher layoff policies in most cities and states make a bad situation worse by forcing schools to ignore teacher quality in layoff decisions. Instead, layoffs are based strictly on teachers’ seniority in the school system. The newest teachers are laid off first, regardless of their talent or results. Inevitably, extraordinary teachers are cut while less effective teachers are retained. In some states, even teacher-of-the-year award winners have received pink slips.

Even more tragically, layoffs based on seniority disproportionately affect the neediest students, who are more likely to have newer teachers and who commonly face severe educational disadvantages. In New York City, for example, three of the five community school districts projected to face the highest percentages of layoffs are in the South Bronx. Schools in these areas may lose 1 in 5 teachers.

Seniority-based layoffs fall short as a fiscal solution as well; because the newest teachers earn the lowest salaries, limiting layoffs exclusively to novice teachers means more teachers must be cut to achieve the same budget reduction goal. And as we showed in a report last month, teachers themselves overwhelmingly reject these rules. When we asked 9,000 teachers in two large urban districts for their opinion, nearly 3 in 4 said that factors other than seniority should be considered in layoff decisions.

These outdated rules—and the harm they cause to students—represent the real danger of teacher layoffs. Recognizing this, Indianapolis recently eliminated its old seniority-only layoff rules in collaboration with the local teachers’ union. California has proposed legislation to strike quality-blind layoff rules from state law.

The “Keep Our Educators Working Act” may postpone some layoffs, but only for so long. When funding runs out, districts and states will again face the difficult decision of which teachers should be cut. Congress should ensure that, when that time comes, it isn’t illegal for schools to try to keep their best teachers.

It can do so by amending the bill to require states and districts to enact quality-based layoff policies in short order if they accept funding. Transparent, fair layoff procedures based on performance are possible—it is only a matter of taking action. This amendment would ensure that taxpayer dollars go towards protecting the country’s best teachers at all experience levels. Let’s not allow a generation of talented young teachers to become the next victim of the recession. 

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

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