Teacher Seniority Policy Continues to Vex Administration Attempts at Reform

John Mooney | October 8, 2010 | Education
Four little words -- ‘last hired, first fired’ -- protect teachers, but do they plague reform?

It’s known in education circles as the “last hired, first fired” clause for teacher layoffs, where seniority rules and dismissals start with the least experienced laid off first, no matter how good or bad they are.

In New Jersey, it’s one sentence in state law, technically Title 18A:28-10, that dates back to 1967.

Ultimately, it looks like the policy principle that touched off New Jersey’s Race to the Top drama — and a point of debate not likely to fade anytime soon.

Schundler Before Senate Panel

In new testimony over the failed federal applications, ousted education commissioner Bret Schundler yesterday brought forward to a Senate panel more detail as to what led to his disagreements with Gov. Chris Christie, ultimately costing Schundler his job.

And for all the talk of the politics and “vendettas” along the way and a certain editing error that cost a critical five points in the competition, Schundler said it often came back to a fundamental difference over how much teacher seniority should remain a driving force in New Jersey state law, or at least in the federal application.

Christie remains adamant that it should be removed as a protection for teachers, and they should be judged – and retained – solely on their performance. It is one of the central tenets of his six-point education reform plan announced last week.

But Schundler last spring brokered a deal with the state teachers union that would have left the provision’s fate out of the Race to the Top bid, a decision that Christie ultimately rejected.

“The governor told me it was horrible policy and horrible politics,” Schundler said after his three hours of testimony.

Willing to Bend

But during that testimony, the commissioner said he had been willing to bend on it with the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), feeling the administration could tackle the policy separately and it should not jeopardize the rest of the agreement revamping how teachers are judged and students assessed.

“The teachers union was dead set against the change,” he said. “It was make or break for them. And in order to get the endorsement, I agreed to drop that.”

“It didn’t mean we had to drop the agenda,” Schundler added.

Teacher seniority has become a focal point of debate across the country as school budgets grow tight and school leaders look for some flexibility in how they determine what teachers go first.

Pulling Back on Protection

Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles have all been embroiled in attempts to pull back on teacher seniority as a defining protection. A federal judge in California this week approved a settlement that would have removed the seniority protection, a deal the district’s teachers union is challenging.

In a state where an estimated 3,000 teachers may have been laid off in the last year, New Jersey is one of about a dozen states with seniority protections written into law.

“Experience counts,” said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, chief lobbyist for the NJEA.

“It’s all related to tenure,” she said. “Honestly, I think it’s their way to get around the tenure issue and get rid of so-called bad teachers. But who are the ones they don’t want? Those at the top of the [salary] guide.”

That has been where the issue gets complicated, with the disagreement on what measure could be used instead of seniority.

Christie and Schundler both pressed – with the NJEA’s initial support – for rewriting how teachers are evaluated, with a big emphasis on student achievement. Christie continues to push the plan, but such a review is only just underway.

“The seniority issue is huge and something that state and district budget crises and layoffs over the past two years have really put a spotlight on,” said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science and education at Drew University.”

“But of course it’s tied up and dependent on the broader evaluation and tenure fights,” he said. “You have to be able to show that a senior teacher is not effective, or less effective than a younger one, and then have the power to act on it.”

Weighing In

In New Jersey, others are also starting to weigh in, with state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) taking a lead role and working with legislative staff to craft a bill or even a structure for discussion.

As chair of the Senate education committee, Ruiz said Senate hearings on tenure reform – including the role of seniority — would likely be one of her next orders of business.

“Very soon,” she said. “I want to bring all the stakeholders to the table, the administration, the NJEA, the principals, everyone, to figure out what really works.

“Seniority is a huge issue, and we haven’t even begun to dissect it,” she said. “But we need to talk about it in a tangible way. What are the benefits or not? There are ups and downs to everything that we need to look at.”