Thursday, May 3, 2012

I got the last-in first-out blues......

I got the last-in first-out blues.  What are they?
The last-in first out blues come from watching politicians all over the country begin to fight over last-in first-out teacher hiring and layoffs, as if the ability to fire senior teachers was somehow the linchpin of all school reform.   This fight, has deadlocked the Republican legislature and our Democratic governor and polluted the education reform landscape, destroying our ability as a state to marshall a coalition for true massive reform.  
I view this fight as a great evasion, a great diversion away from doing what really needs to be done.  Those of you who have read my prior posts know that I tend to take a "plague on both your houses" point of view, and this post is no exception.  I believe that Republicans are destroying the prospect for true reform by focusing on teacher tenure,  instead of supporting smart reforms that could really transform public education.  I believe that Democrats are destroying the prospect for true reform, by failing to advance smart reforms from their side as well.  As long as we focus on the tenure battle, both sides can fight the good fight for their respective die hard bases, while true reform passes us by.  

Now last-in first-out is the system we have in public education, both in our tenure statute and in most collective bargaining agreements, that says that when teachers are laid off at the end of the year through downsizing of faculty, that you must lay off the least experienced teachers first.   Last-in first-out is rooted in the tenure system that exists in public education and other forms of government civil service.  Tenure laws arose partly to prevent politicians from dismissing civil servants for political reasons; they were one of the great governmental reforms beginning at the end of the 19th century, first at the national level and then later spreading to local government as part of the progressive movement.   One of the assumptions made by anti-tenure reformers is that if we were to free up management to get rid of "bad teachers," that the result would be a major significant improvement in the quality of teaching.    But it is also possible, that another result of elimination of tenure would be the gross politicization of the teacher-hiring and firing system..

If we eliminated tenure, we would be increasing the risk level for persons entering the teaching profession.    Already teacher turnover rates are quite high, particularly in schools serving low-income, non-white and low-achieving student populations.  See HOW TEACHER TURNOVER HARMS STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT,  (National Bureau of Economic Research, 2011).   Nationally, about 30 percent of new teachers leave the profession after five years, and the turnover rate is 50 percent higher in high-poverty schools as compared to more affluent ones.  Teacher turnover rates also tend to be higher in urban and lower-performing schools.   It is simple economics that raising the risk in any profession requires an increase in the reward -- ie rates of pay -- in order to attract people to that profession.   If we make it easier to fire teachers, we make that job far less secure, and merely to keep quality even, we will have to raise pay significantly to compensate for that increased risk.   The folks that are campaigning for greater flexibility to fire teachers seldom if ever propose that public school budgets should be increased to compensate for the increased insecurity that goes with those jobs.  It is really ironic that often the greatest champions for the marketplace in teachers, refuse to acknowledge that increased flexibility in layoffs must be compensated for with greater investment in average teacher compensation.  

Another reason that we have our current seniority system, of course, is that the seniority system is critical to the effectiveness of unions.  That's one of the main reasons that the fight over seniority breaks down so heavily these days around political parties.   A central feature of collective bargaining here in Minnesota is the ability of unions to push up wages beyond management's perceived ability to pay, and to ultimately force management to inflict major cuts in order to pay teachers more.   If management could respond to pay increases by cutting the positions of the most senior teachers, why then those senior teachers would be far more reluctant to demand increases in pay.   Many of the people who claim to be pushing for elimination of last-in first out for quality reasons also see the reform as a way of undermining the power of unions, thereby undermining a key pillar of the liberal political movements. And, many of the folks who claim to believe in the sanctity of collective bargaining, on the labor side, refuse to provide local school districts with the funds necessary to pay the resulting wages.  So one of the benefits of the current system is that it allows wages to go up without having to raise the state budget by the amount necessary to fund those costs.  But that's an argument for another day, and another post. 

And so the debate over seniority talks about improving public education, but the subtext is a whole lot more about republicans undermining democrats and democrats defending a key coalition partner.  

Aside from the political opportunity to defend or undermine public labor unions, I believe that the last-in first-out debate is undermining our ability to develop consensus around some major reforms that would genuinely result in the maximum benefit to public education.   What reforms, you say?   That will be the topic of my next post on the last-in first-out blues.

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