The chief of New Jersey’s largest school district yesterday firmly offered support for the arguments behind a new lawsuit against the state, which challenges the law protecting senior teachers from layoffs.
Chris Cerf, who was Gov. Chris Christie’s state education commissioner before taking the job of Newark schools superintendent, said the state’s “last in, first out” or LIFO seniority rules are a “serious, serious problem for us” as the cash-strapped district struggles to cover the cost of ineffective teachers who have been rejected from teaching positions but remain on the payroll.
Calling the LIFO law “morally unjustified,” Cerf listed it as one of the continuing challenges the Newark school district faces, along with an expired teacher contract, insufficient funding, and attracting and retaining talented teachers. He made the remarks while updating the state Board of Education on progress in the state-controlled district.
Cerf and Christie have criticized LIFO for years, with Christie saying he regretted it was not changed when a new tenure law passed in 2012. They say the current rule, which requires districts that are laying off tenured teachers to do so in order of seniority, is harmful to students because it forces districts to keep longer-serving but ineffective teachers while newer, better ones are let go.
“This is one where I am going to get on my soapbox, because there is no moral justification for this,” Cerf said. “This is an act of political cowardice and giving in to interest groups. It’s no more complicated than that.”
Cerf has said he cannot comment on the litigation specifically. A Department of Education spokesman also declined to comment.
LIFO was targeted this week by the Partnership for Educational Justice, a New York educational reform group founded by former NBC anchorwoman Campbell Brown. Acting on behalf of several Newark parents, the group is challenging the constitutionality of LIFO, which it calls the “quality-blind layoff statute.” PEJ has filed similar complaints in New York and Minnesota.
The suit contends that leaving ineffective teachers in low-income districts like Newark while laying off effective teachers deprives students of the “thorough and efficient” education required by New Jersey’s constitution. It demands permanent suspension of the rule in those districts and a declaration that LIFO is unconstitutional.
The New Jersey Education Association criticized Brown’s organization as an “out-of-state special interest group” that is misleading parents “to advance their harmful political agenda.”
“New Jersey’s seniority statute … provides an important protection to students and communities by keeping politics, and politicians, out of the decision-making process when layoffs are imposed on our public schools,” NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer said in a statement.
Steinhauer said the state’s tenure law already has a process for removing ineffective teachers. That law prevents political pressure being brought to bear on administrators to fire teachers without giving a reason, particularly good veteran teachers who earn higher salaries, he said. Steinhauer also said districts should help teachers improve rather than immediately move to fire them.
He also criticized the suit for attempting to “scapegoat teachers for the state’s failure to provide the resources and support needed in so many districts across the state.” Brown should instead prove her concern for students by “fighting for the funding that politicians like Chris Christie have withheld from our most vulnerable districts,” Steinhauer said.
The Partnership for Educational Justice in fact does argue in the suit for adequate funding of the Newark schools, which it says face “a crippling budget deficit.” The suit says the district would suffer if the state Supreme Court agreed to Christie’s recent request to modify its past Abbott decisions and sharply cut state funding to low-income districts.
However, rather than call for greater state funding, the suit says the district should be allowed to save money by laying off ineffective teachers, some of whom remain on the payroll even though they are not assigned to a classroom.
Cerf echoed those arguments about the cost of LIFO yesterday. When he became Newark’s superintendent in July 2015, the district was spending $25 million to $30 million a year to pay tenured teachers who had been rejected by schools to which they had applied but could not be let go.
To avoid a budget deficit the district forced some of the schools to accept the teachers, which helped cut the spending on them to $9 million currently, Cerf said. He said the $9 million would be better spent on technology, books, new hires, or raises, and called on lawmakers to eliminate LIFO.
“It is nothing short of shameful that we sit here and talk about putting the interest of children first, and we can’t get the Legislature to even consider addressing something that so obviously would make a difference,” he said.
Cerf also discussed improvements the Newark schools have seen in recent years and barriers to further progress.
Last year’s graduation rate reached 73 percent, up from about 59 percent in 2011, though many graduates are still not prepared for college or careers, he said. The number of regular public school students achieving passing scores on Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessments rose, though the pass rates remain very low. In language arts the pass rate increased 6 percent to 28 percent, compared to 51 percent statewide. In math, the pass rate rose 2.5 percent to 20 percent, compared to 40 percent across New Jersey.
He noted that Newark’s charter schools had much higher pass rates that nearly reached the state figures.
One highlight was the very good performance of students at Newark’s public magnet schools on the high school PARCC exams. For example, 55 percent of the magnet students met or exceeded expectations on the language arts exam, compared to 45 percent statewide, 37 percent at Newark charters, and 27 percent at all Newark public high schools combined.
Cerf said the plan announced this year to remove Newark schools from state control continues to move forward, with another evaluation of the district scheduled for next spring. He said he remains “absolutely committed” to restoring local autonomy after more than 20 years of state control.
“Ultimately the goal is not just to achieve transition to local control but to pass on a billion-dollar enterprise that has its head straight around its central mission of achieving educational success for all children,” he said, “and is solvent and is the beneficiary of a succession strategy that continues to sustain and abet the good work of the last several years, rather than it reverting to some practices that were not in the best interests of children.”
But he said the continued flat funding of aid for the state-supported district is a growing obstacle to improving the quality of education in the city.
“If the budget remains flat and our enrollment continues to increase, that means our per-pupil spending comes down,” Cerf said. “And that continues to put tremendous pressure on our ability to pay teachers what they deserve and support our educational agenda.”