Nobody wants to be handed that dreaded pink slip. Just ask veteran educator Tom Rademacher.
Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014, Rademacher had taught for six years at a Minnesota middle school before heading off to openings in other districts. He returned to that middle school last year, but his stay was short-lived
. When budgets were cut and layoffs were announced, Rademacher was among the educators who were let go
— a casualty of last in, first out (LIFO), which prioritizes seniority in teacher layoff decisions.
For Rademacher, things could’ve ended a lot differently had state lawmakers worked more swiftly. After years of debate, legislators approved new rules this spring that remove LIFO from state statute, effective July 2019. Current law requires LIFO as a fallback if teachers and school administrators cannot reach a consensus on how to conduct layoffs.
Although a precise count doesn’t exist
of how many districts nationwide rely on LIFO, the landscape in recent years has undergone a “significant shift” toward layoff decisions based on teacher performance, said Sarah Heaton, managing director of district policy and practice at the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit that advocates performance-based layoffs.
Among America’s 50 largest school districts in 2010, according to data NCTQ provided to The 74, only one used performance as the most important factor in layoff decisions, while more than 60 percent relied on LIFO. By 2013, 16 of the districts had adopted policies that rely on performance, while half favored on seniority.
In response to Minnesota’s new law, the nonprofit released a report this month analyzing the state of LIFO nationally, demonstrating a shifting landscape across the country. NCTQ explored teacher layoff policies at the country’s 100 largest school districts and the largest district in each state — totaling 124 districts — and found that 40 percent use performance evaluations as the top factor in teacher layoff decisions. An additional 17 percent of districts use performance as an “important factor” in layoff decisions, while 40 percent use seniority as the sole metric to remove teachers, the group found.
That’s a significant shift from NCTQ’s findings in 2010
, when an overwhelming majority of districts used seniority as the most important factor in layoff decisions — a “factory model approach” that the group argued is unusual among white-collar professions. In that analysis, NCTQ looked at the 100 largest districts in its database of teacher contracts
and determined that 75 used seniority in layoff decisions.
Although Heaton said the two studies illustrate a shift in recent years, she acknowledged they aren’t directly comparable, since the composition of districts represented in their data has changed. But the move toward performance isn’t taking place in school board meetings, she said; it’s happening in state capitols. In Colorado, for example, lawmakers approved rules in 2012
that require districts to weigh teacher performance as a factor in layoff decisions.
“There certainly are some districts that choose to fight this fight and make changes to their teachers contract to be able to lay off based on performance, but the trend is very much that state laws drive this change,” she said. “Specifically, state law that requires that districts use performance when they consider who they’re going to lay off.”
around LIFO policies has riled up educators and policy wonks for years. Supporters, including teachers unions, argue that experience is a leading contributor toward effectiveness and that teacher evaluations shouldn’t be used for high-stakes decisions like layoffs. Opponents argue that “quality-blind layoffs” lead to the loss of good teachers and disproportionately harm high-poverty students, who are often taught by the youngest, least experienced educators.
Despite the trend NCTQ highlighted, it remains unclear how Minnesota’s policy change will actually affect teachers. On several occasions in the past few years, Republican state Rep. Jenifer Loon has proposed legislation to remove the LIFO fallback from state law, including attempts to mandate the use of performance evaluations in layoff decisions. When those failed, she proposed legislation this year that simply took LIFO out of the law.
“It’s almost part of bargaining now, where the parties have to agree on what the language is and what the process will be if there’s an unrestricted leave of absence that needs to take place,” said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, which opposed the state’s LIFO law.
Calling the new law a “big step forward” for Minnesota schools, Loon acknowledged opposition from unions but argued that the change will help balance power in collective bargaining between union leaders and districts. Previously, she said, “there really wasn’t an interest in the part of the teachers union in negotiating anything other than the seniority-only fallback in state statute.”
Heaton said it remains unclear exactly how the policy change will actually affect schools and Minnesota teachers, and it’s certainly possible it won’t spark many changes on the district level. Denise Specht, president of the teachers union Education Minnesota, who declined an interview request by The 74, said in a statement the new rules don’t prevent districts from maintaining existing teacher layoff policies, “and we expect most districts will do so.” About 60 percent of school districts
currently use the default option, according to the union.
But without a state law that mandates performance-based layoff decisions, districts may not be interested in putting forth political capital to negotiate changes on the local level, Heaton said. In states that give districts the freedom to set their own layoff policies, she said, districts typically stick with the seniority-driven approach.
“Our sense is that it is an easier thing for school districts to continue with how they’ve always done business when it comes to layoff policy,” she said. “Of the fights to fight, it is not always the one that school districts choose to take on if they don’t have a state-driven impetus to do so.”