In the Arena

Teacher Layoffs

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I’m generally in favor of President Obama’s efforts to prevent massive layoffs of public employees at the state and local level. But–you knew a “but” was coming, right?–there have to be some strings attached. I’m not sure Charles Lane is right that this isn’t as bad as it seems. The pain won’t be distributed equally. The districts that will be hit the hardest will be the poorest districts, which don’t have the lush property tax base of the suburbs. And so, what to do? Which strings to attach?

First, the unions should forego their raises for the next few years–Michael Bloomberg has already negotiated this sort of deal in New York; other mayors and governors are trying to do the same. Second, and more important: layoffs should not be made according to (lack of) seniority. They should be made according to merit. Older teachers are often priceless mentors, the glue that holds a school together–but they are, just as often, burnt out cases. And they cost a lot more than younger teachers. Younger teachers lack the experience, internal status and respect that master teachers have, but the best of them bring energy and innovation to their work–and the need to prove themselves (a necessary requirement that tenure strips from older teachers).

The question is, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? By managing well, by making tough decisions, by choosing a mix of young and old, energy and experience. The unions would have teachers treated as coal miners, strictly by seniority–without any of the quality considerations that other professionals must meet in order to keep their clientele. Yes, if teachers were sorted out by merit, decisions would sometimes be made on the basis of cronyism and sometimes creative troublemakers would be weeded out. But a more accountable system would make principals more accountable, too. Schools that were run by fools, crooks or hidebound martinets wouldn’t achieve the results that schools run on merit would; sooner or later, the bad principals would be sacked.

At least, that’s the theory. Given the twin crises that the education establishment is facing–fiscal and qualitative–it sure seems well past time to test that theory.