2011-02-18 / Columnists

School Scope

Why Won’t Mulgrew Defend LIFO?
By Norman Scott

I watched UFT President Michael Mulgrew on Diana Williams on ABC on Sunday and wasn’t surprised he wouldn’t defend Last In First Out (LIFO), which is the civil service system that assures fairness in layoff policy.

He didn’t at the February Delegate Assembly and he didn’t when he went to speak to Educators 4 Excellence, a group of teachers advocating for an end to LIFO, whose leaders left the classroom after being funded by Gates and DFER (Democrats for Education Reform) money. Instead he shifts the debate to not having layoffs at all or talks about class size. Not a bad strategy but ducking the LIFO issue when he has a platform to make a rational case does everyone a disservice. Why not bring up the numerous cases of teachers being charged with incompetence because of their union activity? Peter Lamphere, the former chapter leader at Bronx High of Science and acknowledged as a master math teacher, received two U-ratings in a row. Threatened with a third, he reluctantly accepted a transfer.

Every teacher under assault on political grounds weakens the willingness of teachers to even put modifications of the LIFO rules on the table. The UFT should be highlighting these examples as part of their fightback. Making the connection between political use of U ratings and LIFO should be at the top of Mulgrew’s agenda.

Some will say that LIFO can be unfair. What if a new teacher pulls more weight than a more senior one?

Is a democratic system of government always fair? There are all sorts of distortions. But can anyone point to an alternative. The same with LIFO. Not always fair to all but in fact it is the only system that works over the long term. It is a system put in place well over a hundred years ago way before there were teacher unions because of the corruption and patronage that went on – and will go on again if LIFO is scrapped.

We can talk about hundreds of principals who would not make a fair and rational judgment. Other principals I know absolutely support LIFO in spite of what it costs them.

The fair funding formula which charges each school for the costs of the teachers (the old system put all salaries in a central pool and schools weren’t penalized for higher salaried teachers) was designed to entice principals to get rid of the highest paid teachers. I have a simple way to eliminate that as a factor – go back to the old system of not charging a school for the costs of teacher salaries. There can be no LIFO modifications until that ends. But you will never see that happen because the very reason for the fair funding formula in the first place was to give principals an incentive to dump the higher paid teachers and it reveals the entire intention behind the move to end LIFO – cut the top salaried people.

I was at a school the other day as a speaker and a fourth-year teacher told me she supported the idea of LIFO but also doesn’t think it fair for her to lose her job while she can point to people in the school who don’t pull their weight. A fair point.

But let’s drill a bit. First, she has no guarantee that the principal sees it the way she does. I once had a principal who favored people who sucked up to her – to her that was pulling the weight.

Secondly, as a fourth-year teacher she already had a buffer over teachers with less seniority than she has. If she is laid off, LIFO seniority rules should protect her when people are called back – though I don’t know how this would work in reality. In 1975 when there were massive layoffs, most people were called back within a year or two – and in the order in which they were laid off and at the salary that they were making. Teaching at that point became a tough job to get.

In fact, you will never find everyone working to the same capacity in any job – I know young lawyers at big firms who chafe over the seniority that goes on – there are forms of LIFO in almost every profession. What about hospitals? Even among doctors, the longer you are there the more perks you get. There are also all sorts of politics that keep certain people around while more competent people can’t get ahead. What do you think goes on in the police or fire departments? To make teachers the focal point is just part of the general assault on public education – to ruin teaching as a career and replace teachers with a cheap, transient force. As Diane Ravitch points out, there are 4 million teachers in this nation – do they think they can work on the Peace Corps idea?

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