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New teachers dodge bullet, no thanks to lawmakers

Post by Kim Bradford on May 16, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
May 16, 2011 4:41 pm

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

State lawmakers owe a big debt to all the resigning and retiring teachers who forestalled large-scale layoffs in South Sound school districts this year.

But for those teachers, students and their families might have had a personal lesson in how flawed the state’s teacher retention policies are.

Seniority still rules teacher layoffs despite the fact that the vast majority of voters say they want districts to pink-slip the least effective teachers first.

The antiquated policy is costly in two ways: It robs schools of some of the best and brightest, and it leaves high-salaried burnout cases on the payroll, requiring districts to lay off more teachers to make budget.

In the South Sound, the Bethel School District is one of the few exceptions to the no-layoff rule, and its experience is a window on what might have been elsewhere.

It sent out 17 notices to teachers who face layoffs. Superintendent Tom Seigel says almost all of them went to elementary teachers just starting their careers.

Research shows that beginning teachers disproportionately work at schools with high numbers of poor and minority children. Those students are, in turn, disproportionately affected if junior teachers are let go first.

A University of Washington study last year projected that student achievement drops by an estimated 2.5 to 3.5 months of learning per student after seniority-based layoffs.
Reform advocates rightfully charge that deciding layoffs by years of service denies students a fair and equitable education.

There is another way. Making teacher performance the most important factor in layoff decisions protects new and veteran teachers alike who have demonstrated they are making a difference in student achievement.

Despite bipartisan support, proposals to require that districts use teacher effectiveness instead of seniority as the driving factor in layoffs cannot get past Democratic leadership in state Legislature.

Last week, Gov. Chris Gregoire sealed the legislation’s fate, telling the Washington Education Association that she would veto any bill dismantling the seniority system. She and other opponents probably can expect little backlash with teacher layoffs shaping up to be much smaller than predicted this year.

But this won’t be the last time that districts have to trim staff.

Next time, schools may have exhausted their supply of teachers who want to leave. Then communities will get a clearer view of the consequences of valuing teachers’ longevity over their performance.

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