“Whenever a board of education abolishes a position under this chapter, the services of the teacher having the least seniority in the system within the tenure of the position abolished shall be discontinued.”

— New York State Education Law,
Section 2510, subsection 2

If someone asked you for a recommendation on how your local school district could ensure the best education for our children in the face of a financial crisis, we’ll bet your answer wouldn’t be: “Fire the good teachers and keep the terrible ones.”

If you did say that, then you’re probably in favor of an archaic and unfair method for laying off teachers known as “LIFO.”

Last in, first out.

That means that when a district has to lay off teachers to cut spending and balance its budget, the layoffs must be done in the order of laying off the newest teachers first and retaining the longer-tenured teachers, regardless of how well those newer hires perform in comparison to their older colleagues.

Districts can’t consider other factors such as performance, disciplinary records or other black marks in the decision.

The practice, codified in state Education Law, not only deprives students of the best teachers, but also prevents districts from maximizing savings by forcing them to keep underperforming higher-paid teachers at the expense of newer teachers who generally earn less pay and benefits.

Also, because districts faced with such decisions have to meet certain dollar savings through layoffs, LIFO forces them to have to lay off more teachers to meet the threshold.  For instance, if a district has to cut $100,000 in salary, it would have to lay off two teachers earning $50,000 each, rather than one teacher earning $100,000, to reach that goal. How does that serve the educational mission?

Also, LIFO may also hurt low-income students and students of color, since less experienced teachers tend to work in schools with higher concentrations of minority and poorer students.

Under LIFO, taxpayers lose out, students lose out and society loses out.

The only winners are old, bad teachers and people who don’t want the best education for our kids.

The Rochester City School District is grappling with this situation right now.

The district is faced with having to lay off 152 teachers by the end of this month in order to help close a $64.8 million budget deficit, unless another plan is devised by next week. According to an analysis by the Empire Center, the district in 2015-2016 (the last year figures were available) identified 146 teachers as “ineffective.” All or most of those teachers will be retained because of this policy, the Empire Center reports.

Of course, laying off teachers should be a last-ditch option for cutting budgets. The Rochester district has been accused of fiscal mismanagement, prompting some to call for state action to rescue it — not necessarily by throwing more tax money at it, but by measures such as having the city of Rochester take over the district.

But when teacher layoffs are necessary, one way districts could preserve some teaching jobs while saving money is through a change in the state law regarding strict adherence to seniority as the sole factor in determining who stays and who goes in a fiscal crisis.

Changing or reforming the law wouldn’t be as simple as one might think.

First of all, LIFO is not only written into state law, but also into many teacher contracts, including Rochester’s. If the law was thrown out, districts still would have to negotiate the policy out of its contracts. That’s going to be one that teachers unions will fight for.

A more complex problem comes with how a district determines which teachers are ineffective and where to place them on the order of layoffs. It’s not a simple thing to rank teachers based on quality and performance. And even if there were a reasonably objective way to reach that decision, there will be pushback from not only teachers and their unions, but from parents who might not agree with a favorite teacher’s rank order on the layoff list.

Until the state education system comes up with a comprehensive method for evaluating and ranking teachers targeted for layoff, it’s likely going to stick with this equally unfair, but simplistic and transparent method for determining layoffs.

The lazy way to resolve this problem is by doing nothing to address it. If our educational leaders and state legislators truly believe that LIFO is not the best way to serve students and taxpayers, then they’ll have to put in the effort to overturn it.

Other states have begun shifting away from seniority as the sole determining factor for layoffs. Most recently, Minnesota lawmakers, after years of debate, approved new rules that became effective in July that remove LIFO from state statute, forcing districts to come up with other methods for determining eligibility for layoffs.

No private business could be expected survive or thrive by being forced by law to keep its worst employees in favor of its better ones.

Why would we expect that of our schools?

© 2019 The Daily Gazette

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The Empire Center is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank located in Albany, New York. Our mission is to make New York a better place to live and work by promoting public policy reforms grounded in free-market principles, personal responsibility, and the ideals of effective and accountable government.