Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Could a budget crisis reform teaching?

Tight budgets are causing many local governments to revisit labor agreements in search of cost savings. Around Milwaukee we've seen labor concessions to avoid layoffs at MATC and the city; unpaid furlough days at the city and county; and teacher layoffs at MPS. While a portion of the laid-off teachers were called back last week, the MPS layoffs have been portrayed as the most drastic labor management tactics of any local government in response to the budget crisis.

Facing its own budget troubles, the Chicago Public School District (CPS) is also looking at the potential for layoffs. But the CPS board of education approved a new policy last month that would prioritize the release of tenured teachers with the poorest performance ratings over newer teachers with higher ratings. The policy would save the district money every time a more costly senior teacher is laid off instead of a lower paid, more recent hire. The policy would go into effect if the district reaches class sizes of 35, another attempt at coping with a gaping budget hole, or if student enrollment drops enough to require layoffs.

The Chicago teachers union is arguing that the district cannot implement the policy, as it violates the negotiated teacher contract. The contract, in place since 2007, requires layoffs to be based on seniority. The district claims state law allows it the discretion to use teacher performance evaluations in making layoff determinations. The district and the union are debating whether the discretion granted by the state law is abandoned when a district signs a contract that does not include a provision for performance-based layoffs. (The union also contends that the teacher evaluation process is too arbitrary to be used for this purpose, a universal issue with regard to teacher performance measurement.)

If CPS prevails, it will be among the first to abandon the traditional "last hired, first fired" model for mass layoffs. However, it is not likely to be the last. Education reform advocates wanted the $10 billion federal education jobs bill, which passed the House July 1 and is now pending in the Senate, to include a provision requiring states to outlaw seniority-based layoffs in order to be eligible for the aid. (The bill does not contain the provision.) Arizona is currently the only state with such a law on the books, although Gov. Schwarzenegger has stated his support for a similar proposal in California.

While Wisconsin has yet to take on the issue, it is not unreasonable to expect pinched districts to look for new ways to relieve their budgetary stress. Education reform is not usually driven by the need to save money and often, in fact, requires an influx of money. Could this be the reform that structural deficits hath wrought?

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