2011-03-04 / Columnists

School Scope

LIFO Battle Lines Are Drawn
Commentary By Norman Scott

Norman Scott Norman Scott As the school wars reach a frenzy, we often find that even those on the side of truth, justice and all that jazz are not fully informed as to the level of attacks directed at public employees, with teachers seeming to be the major target.

In her excellent “It’s My Turn” piece in last week’s Wave, Joan Mettler chronicled her miserable experience as a 22-year-old teacher when she received a U-rating for her refusal to sleep with her principal, who was in his 50s. It took some effort but she beat that U-rating and the threat to her, just starting out her career.

Joan began her piece by reviewing the three criteria for layoffs laid out by the Bill Gates funded group organizing to undermine the union, Educators for Excellence – E4E – which we are terming ME4ME. Excessive tardiness or absence (without medical reasons) is the first criteria and most people seem willing to accept that. The third is that teachers with “Unsatisfactory” ratings, which Joan refutes with her story - and I can tell you a hundred more stories of teachers rated “U” for political reasons.

But it is Joan’s support for the second reason – teachers in the Reserve Teacher pool, ATRs, should be laid off if they haven’t found a job within 12 months, that is disturbing. I’m sure Joan is not supporting the firing of every Beach Channel HS teacher and all those others at schools that have been under resourced and then forced into closure who don’t get hired by another school, no matter what the salary.

ATRs were created by the contract signed between the UFT and the DoE in 2005 which, by ending seniority bumping during excessing and layoffs, created what is termed the “Open Market System” which allowed principals to hire anyone without considering seniority. The UFT bragged about how they had guaranteed the jobs, if not an actual teaching position, for all those whose schools had been closed. To be totally fair and balanced, under this system Joan’s principal would not have been able to stop her from transferring as he did for a decade, one of the few improvements the ‘05 contract brought.

BloomKlein, once they got what they wanted and viewing the cost of the ATR pool as an investment expense, bided their time, while using the fawning press as tools to attack the very contract they themselves had been willing to sign onto. What quickly became clear was that the ATRs were not just sitting around schools knitting all day, but were often pulling full-time programs for teachers on leave or who got sick, while never having the same rights of even the most junior teacher in the school. If there were no position, they did day-to-day sub work, which many consider the most demeaning job in the system.

Klein upped the ante by instituting the “Fair Student Formula” which for the first time attached the cost of paying the teachers to the school budget, thus giving principals a major incentive to start dumping higher salaries.

And now, with much posturing, Bloomberg is using the threat of layoffs to go after the last vestige of the seniority system, “last in, first out,” a bastion of the civil service system from the days of Teddy Roosevelt well over a century ago — a system designed to put an end to the favoritism and patronage that ran rampant through not only late 19th century schools, but police, fire, etc.

With events in Wisconsin, which some are comparing to Egypt – how ironic that someone in Egypt actually ordered a pizza for the protestors from a Madison WI pizza shop – we may be seeing a turning point, the reaching of the fed-up factor that just may awake the slumbering teaching corps, which has been so lulled into inactivity by the union leadership.

How gratifying to see that a group of under-five-year teachers have taken action to counteract the activities of ME4ME by putting out a letter urging young teachers to sign a petition (http://bit.ly/eCXaC8) to support seniority rights and LIFO. Coming out of the NY Collective of Radical Educators (NYCORE), the group is getting some notice.

The idea that LIFO is protecting old codgers over the young and energetic is not true.

The latest figures I’ve seen are that 60 percent of the teaching force are in the system for five years and under. With almost 2000 teachers expected to retire this year, it is clear that most of the teachers protected by LIFO are newer and often younger teachers. I told a 4th year teacher who was worried about being laid off, “You are protected over 1-3 year teachers. Who is to guarantee your principal would keep you over some first year relative of a politician? And if you are laid off, you will be called back in an orderly manner.” Any other system outside of LIFO leads to total chaos. Old Teddy Roosevelt was right on.

Here is the letter from newer teachers.

Open letter: New teachers support seniority rights - Request for signatures

An Open Letter from Newer Teachers of New York State February 21, 2011

Dear parents, students, colleagues, school administrators, elected officials, and members of the public,

Currently, New York State’s seniority rules protect experienced teachers from layoffs, a policy sometimes known as “last in, first out.” In recent budget negotiations, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Black have pressured Governor Cuomo to overturn this rule. We, the undersigned teachers who have been teaching in New York State for five years or less, stand in solidarity with our more experienced colleagues and strongly support maintaining seniority rights.

As newer teachers, we rely on our more senior colleagues for guidance and support. Senior teachers offer us their advice, their formal mentorship, and their connections with communities. Without more senior teachers, we would lose our bridge to lessons learned through years of dedicated work in the school system.

In addition, the rates of black and Latino new teacher hires in New York City have steadily declined since 2002, while the vast majority of New York City public school students are black and Latino. Opening up more senior teachers to layoffs would risk further decreasing the already sparse ranks of teachers of color.

These teachers provide guidance for younger teachers of all backgrounds, and play an important role in the lives of our students.

We also believe that Bloomberg and Black’s so-called “merit-based” system for retaining teachers will foster competitive, fearful school cultures that are detrimental both to teachers’ professional development and to student learning. In addition, Bloomberg and Black seek to measure teacher performance by student test scores, an imperfect measure at best, and one that encourages narrowly test-focused curricula.

Finally, Bloomberg and Black’s arguments against the seniority rule are based on the fact that newer teachers work for lower salaries than our more experienced peers; allowing experienced teachers to be laid off would therefore reduce the total number of necessary layoffs. This argument, however, fails to account for the true cost of professional development and adequate support for newer teachers.

It also ignores the fact that teacher experience is one of the most reliable predictors of student learning. If student achievement is the priority, then experienced teachers are more than worth their cost.

Ultimately, the debate over who to lay off is a distraction from the root causes of inequity that continue to affect our profession and the lives of our students; budget cuts should not include any teacher layoffs. Education is an investment in our future, and cuts to education are ultimately shortsighted.

We reject political tactics that raise the specter of massive teacher layoffs in efforts to divide the workforce and pit parents against teachers. In the interest of our students, we stand with senior teachers in supporting the seniority rule. Sincerely,

Newer Teachers of New York State.

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