Posted on 07 May 2011.
Mayor Bloomberg presented his executive budget this morning. One of the biggest headlines is his plan to cut more than 42-hundred public school teachers.
He’s been threatening teacher layoffs since late last year. IF they come to pass, they’d be the first since the fiscal crisis in the 1970’s. And, it’ll be seniority – or lack of it – that dictates who gets the pink slips.
This policy, Last in First Out, known as LIFO, has been the law in New York State for more than five decades. At his press conference today, Bloomberg reiterated his stance against it.
“Last in first out is just not the way to run the school system,” he said. “Its an irrational way there are great teachers at all levels of seniority and have to make sure we keep the great ones.”
In the midst of a heated national debate about how to measure teacher merit, many politicians and educators say it’s time for LIFO to go.
It’s Wednesday afternoon at Columbia Secondary School in Harlem. Meg Swan is teaching social studies to a group of about 30 sixth graders.
They’re talking about globalization and she asks them where their stuff comes from.
World maps cover the walls opposite the projector screen and windows. Posters taped to the chalkboard pose wide-ranging questions about the US addiction to oil and the pros and cons of globalization. The students are focused and excited. Swan says she loves teaching at Columbia Secondary School. She asks tough questions of the kids, and they’re up to the challenge.
But this may be the last year Meg Swan has that opportunity. In February, Mayor Bloomberg released a list of the schools that’d be hardest hit by his proposed layoffs. Columbia Secondary topped it. That’s because the school’s staff is young and state law dictates that the last teachers in are the first ones out. The school stands to lose 70 percent of its teachers: a crushing 14 teachers of the current 20.
“I’ve been teaching for six years,” says Swan, “but I am on the chopping block. Which is a little maddening.”
Columbia Secondary is a partnership between the New York city Department of Education and Columbia University. Unlike most public schools, it can select its students – the way charter and private schools do – but its teachers are unionized just like in public schools. Teachers in the union get tenure—and more protection from cuts—after three years of teaching. Swan’s been teaching for six years, but just two of those in city public schools. So she’s vulnerable, she says.
“When I look at both the proposed teacher layoffs coming up and the fact that I am four months pregnant I have to tell myself, “Take the long view, take the long view.”
Swan’s long view is that she’ll continue teaching. she knows that a system that might force her out now is one that will protect her down the road.
So, she’s pro-LIFO but not just for personal reasons: she’s seen principals fire good teachers out on personal bias, and believes that teachers get better over time.
But Maria Eder, Columbia Secondary’s parent coordinator, thinks accepting LIFO is a bad choice when students like her son lose good teachers.
When Eder learned about the proposed staffing cuts, she was:
“Just basically shocked, because it would means our school would unravel.”
Eder says the young staff is great, across the board. She says any layoff policy that doesn’t take merit into account harms kids. She’s not ready to let go of great teachers like Meg Swan without a fight.
“The point is to educate our children properl, says Eder. “The point isn’t to create a tremendous safety net for people who are not doing that. ”
LIFO is sparking debates like these across the country. Most states have LIFO laws on the books and with so many states struggling to balance their budgets, LIFO policies are getting a lot of attention. Illinois and Florida are the latest in a handful of states that have voted to repeal LIFO, and Georgia is on the way.
The U.S. Education secretary Arnie Duncan has spoken out against it. And Here in New York State, Governor Cuomo, Mayor Bloomberg, and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott oppose it. A QuinnaPEEEack poll released in March shows 80 percent of New Yorkers oppose LIFO.
But the powerful teachers’ union considers it a critical protection. Democrats have quashed three legislative attempts to end it in the last year alone.
Andy Rotherman is a an education consultant, who specializes in the history of education reform.
“This is power politics 101,” says Rotherman “Veteran teachers have more voice, they are more organized. Teachers, especially in their first few years of teaching, are not especially engaged in that kind of conversation.”
For Rotherham, there has to be an alternative.
“If we want schools to be good at teaching kids, why would we lay people off with no attention to how good they are at teaching kids,” he asked.
He says, its time to start moving to a merit–based system.
“In most professions, you make these decisions based on a blend of qualitative data and quantitative data. In education we’re gonna have to get comfortable with that, and because its not going to be perfect and because in some places frankly they’ll do it badly, is not a reason to keep in place a policy that demonstrably makes no sense.
Rotherham focuses on national issues, but Evan Stone follows New York education policy. He is the founder of Educators4Excellence, a group of pro-reform teachers. He liked the Senate’s most recent attempt to replace LIFO with a merit-based system.
“It had seven different pools or categories that if teachers fell into they would be laid off.” Sone continued, “so if you fell into all seven, you’d be laid off first and then six and then five working down.”
The proposed seven pools were based on traditional performance issues – teachers who chronically miss work, don’ t have current placements, and the small but significant number who’ve been declared ineffective by their principals. They would have been cut first.
With so many people speaking out against LIFO, the stalemate is frustrating for Stone.
“Can’t we chose these groups of teachers before just our newest teachers.”
But the teacher union’s top brass say the alternatives proposed just haven’t been tested.
Rob Weil is a director at the American Federation of Teachers.
“You can score political points by making really good zings that sound easy like “lets just make a pair of wings and fly to the moon.but….it becomes a little more difficult than just putting some feathers on some sticks.”
At the end of the day, Weil says LIFO makes sense because it protects what’s proven to make the best teachers.
“You wanna keep the teachers that are the most effective. and the most effective are the ones with the experience.”
At a May Day Rally outside City Hall, it’s a sea of acronyms. Hundreds of people are wearing baseball caps and tee shirts in support of their unions. United Federation of Teachers director Anthony Harmon speaks to the crowd.
“No more can we allow these attacks on our public school systems which attempt to pit senior teachers against newer teachers,” Hamon said.
Susan Epstein sports a UFT hat. She says she’s deeply suspicious of how layoffs would happen without the protection of LIFO.
“Everything I see indicates that there is an effort to get rid of teachers who are high on the salary scale regardless of the quality of their teaching.”
And, she says she’s seen this kind of discriminatory firing before.
” A whole lot of people who were satisfactory until their tenure came up all of a sudden became unsatisfactory at my school last year.”
For Epstein, if layoffs have to happen, LIFO is the only fair way to do it.
But for UFT President Mike Mulgrew, how cuts are done is beside the point.
“Any layoff hurts children,” says Mulgrew, “and if people wanna talk about how to lay people off, they wanna talk about how to hurt children, and I don’t want to have any part of it.”
Bloomberg’s new schools chancellor Dennis Walcott says he gets it.
“The only thing worse than having the lay off a teacher is having to lay off a great teacher.”
Dennis Walcott told the City Council’s Education Commission that LIFO is destructive a policy. It can’t go on, when it disproportionately impacts low income kids.
“There are three districts in the Bronx where 90 percent of students receive free or reduced price lunches that would be the three districts hit hardest citywide by layoffs done in accordance with the current LIFO law.”
Walcott promised to push the state government to repeal LIFO before teachers receive their pinkslips, expected by June 1st.
It’s unlikely that state government can pass an alternative to LIFO in time. But, Education consultant Andy Rotherham says LIFO’s days are numbered.
“People already realize what the political outcome of these events is gonna be. but that doesnt mean you don’t have to have all the fighting. LIFO is going away, but it doesn’t mean its not gonna be bloodly while we get there.”
The final budget will be released on June 30th.
Alex Alper Columbia Radio News.