The employment principle of “last in, first out” (LIFO) is enshrined in California’s education code and treated as sacrosanct by the state’s powerful teachers’ unions. It compels public school administrators to make seniority the paramount consideration when facing layoff choices, putting quantity (time served) over quality. But time may be running out for LIFO. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu has until July to rule in a closely watched lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of California’s teacher-seniority and dismissal statutes. If Treu rules for the nine plaintiffs in Vergara v. California, barring a successful appeal, LIFO will die.
Seniority as staffing policy has long since outlived its usefulness, if it ever had any. While California’s well-chronicled fiscal problems have taken a toll on the teaching profession, the state’s seniority system has made matters worse. A recent Sacramento Bee review of state data between 2008 and 2013 found a 40 percent decline in teachers with less than six years’ experience. As districts let new teachers go and stopped hiring, college students began switching to more promising professions. Enrollment in college teaching programs fell by 41 percent between 2008 and 2012.
Eliminating seniority as a consideration would mean fewer teachers getting laid off when budget cuts become necessary. Under the “step-and-column” method of giving teachers automatic salary increases based on seniority and obtainment of advanced degrees, veterans make considerably more than newer hires. The Annenberg Institute reports that districts could readily meet budget goals if they had greater leeway in letting teachers go based on quality, not seniority. And retention based on effectiveness would elevate the profession, as the nonpartisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office notes, because basing employment decisions on the number of years served “can lead to lower quality of the overall teacher workforce.”
Seniority-based layoffs hit poor and minority schools hardest. When senior teachers have the opportunity, they frequently escape these hard-to-staff schools, leaving rookies in their place. So when layoffs become necessary—as during the recent recession—younger teachers are the first to get pink slips, leaving students with a parade of substitutes. The result is an unstable education environment. The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2010 alleging that LIFO violated poor students’ right to a quality education at three low-performing inner-city schools. ACLU attorneys claimed that in 2009, “LAUSD sent reduction in force (“RIF”) notices to 60% of the teachers at Liechty [Middle School], 48% of the teachers at Gompers [Middle School], and 46% of the teachers at Markham [Middle School]. These figures are in contrast with the fact that LAUSD only sent notices to 17.9% of all of its teachers. The RIFs resulted in a large number of teacher vacancies at all three schools.” The district settled in 2011, agreeing to waive seniority rules at 45 poorly performing city schools.
After The United Teachers of Los Angeles appealed, a state appeals court nullified the settlement. Last month, the district and the union agreed to a new deal applying to 37 low-performing schools, with a variety of “fixes,” including hiring more administrators and allowing teachers more paid preparation time. But seniority would remain intact.
The teachers’ unions and their allies have only platitudes and myths to bolster their unyielding defense of seniority. “Saving your jobs would mean that more experienced teachers would lose theirs,” UTLA president A.J. Duffy told a group of young teachers at Liechty Middle School in 2009. “Seniority is the only fair way to do it . . . and any exception would be an act of disloyalty.” State Superintendent Tom Torlakson parroted the union line when he warned that the ruling in the ACLU case could hurt students by requiring them “to be taught by inexperienced teachers rather than finding ways to bring in more experienced and ‘arguably more effective teachers.’” Along these lines, the California Federation of Teachers website claims that “Seniority is the only fair, transparent way to administer layoffs. It ensures equal treatment for all teachers . . . Research consistently shows more experienced teachers provide better student learning outcomes than inexperienced teachers.”
Time on the job is not a proxy for teaching quality, however. Most studies show that a teacher’s effectiveness maxes out in three to five years, and that the majority of teachers don’t improve over time. In fact, some studies show that teachers become less effective as they approach the ends of their careers. Studies examining seniority have not been favorable. The New Teacher Project, for example, found that only 13 to 16 percent of the teachers laid off in a seniority-based system would also have been cut under a system based on teacher effectiveness. Considering the evidence, it’s not surprising that just ten states still mandate seniority, down from 14 in 2010.
Even as traditional public schools lose talented young teachers, charter schools—which are rarely unionized and don’t honor seniority—attract them. In Sacramento County, charters enroll about 10 percent of the students, but last year, they employed 40 percent of the region’s first- and second-year teachers. Last year, teachers at five Sacramento charter schools averaged fewer than five years’ experience.
Unions’ insistence on maintaining seniority underscores their archaic factory-worker mentality. For the unions, teachers are not really professionals but rather interchangeable, dues-paying widgets whose competence and effectiveness are of no discernible importance. The case of Bhavini Bhakta, a former teacher of the year in Southern California, epitomizes LIFO’s arbitrary nature. Bhakta lost her job four times in eight years for want of seniority. In one of her yearly encounters with LIFO, a district official had to decide between her and another teacher of the year, hired on the same day. One would have to be laid off. The solution: have both teachers pull numbered popsicle sticks out of a hat. Her colleague got the higher number, and Bhakta lost another position.
When determining a teacher’s value, administrators should look to more criteria than the number of years on the job. Students’ standardized test scores, along with performance evaluations by impartial experts, principals, and parents, should clearly be part of the mix. For the sake of children, the teaching profession, and taxpayers, seniority must go into the trash heap once and for all.