Posts Tagged hiring and firing teachers

Seniority and Tenure, the Absence of Human Decision-Making

Published by —  The only big surprise regarding the Vergara v. California decision is that it took so long.

I first read a teachers contract 20-ish years ago.  A group of parents who were furious about their kids’ schooling had organized an advocacy group.  Of its several subcommittees, I joined the one examining the contract.  Cluelessly, I thought the meetings would be like a book group, where smart, funny people reflected on what they’d read.  Well, the people were smart, funny and reflective, but the contract itself was terrifying, the meetings upsetting.  My darling twins were in kindergarten at the time.  This contract was governing their education?  My family was in no position to start funding a couple of lifetimes of private school.

But suddenly I did understand how those kindergarten teachers could saunter in 5, 10, 15 minutes after the bell, still chatting and sucking down iced coffee.  Tenure made them virtually untouchable.  When I complained to the principal, he shrugged and said he had to pick his battles.  At least they weren’t bad teachers, he assured me.  But making a stink about their tardiness would sour the teacher atmosphere in the building; vengeance would rain on him torrentially.

Then a Teacher-of-the-Year was laid off, aka “bumped,” out of his teaching position for lack of seniority.  Despite the wealth of evidence about his effectiveness, the Last In, First Out, or “LIFO” rule applied.  No one could stop this insanity?  Well, no, LIFO is still a problem, all over the nation.

During the annual summer ritual called “cattle call,” teachers bidding on open jobs wrote their date of hire on placards so as they bid, holding up the cards, administrators could determine seniority.  This was the process for giving college-educated professionals the responsibility for educating children.  Teachers were “excessed” because a program got cut or enrollment dropped got preference for hiring, so “consolidations” in another district school sent four utterly incompetent teachers into one of my kids’ 9th grade.  The year was disastrous for him.

Over my 20 years as an education columnist, the kids inside the public education industry grew ever more invisible behind a dense thicket of district, state and federal rules, on top of contractual provisions.  Students were trapped in environments designed to serve the adults, first and foremost.

Then last week my inbox was flooded with press releases from myriad organizations, hailing or decrying the Vergara v. California decision.  In brief, Judge Rolf Treu agreed with nine student plaintiffs that laws and labor agreements cementing teachers’ rights to tenure and hiring by seniority did constitute a violation of the students’ civil rights.  With refreshingly dramatic flair, he compared his decision to that of Brown v. Board of Education which exposed racial segregation in schools.  His point was that like segregation, teacher tenure and seniority adversely affect kids.  So why, pray, do we keep these horrible practices in place?

The only big surprise regarding this decision is that it took so long.  Many court challenges have already failed.  And this one might still fail, as it winds its way through layers of court systems.

On the upside, diverse advocates are out banging drums, pots, pans, anything loud, begging other states to mount similar challenges as soon as possible.  They hope to fashion a rational decision in the court of public opinion long before the U.S. Supreme Court takes their shot.  Honestly, the decision entices my now-jaded self back into close observance of education’s legal morass.  It could be fun to see the kids win a few.

But here’s the downside: in the big picture, seniority and tenure are merely two trees in a large, dense forest shrouding kids’ opportunities.  The charter school movement has taught us that even the ability to hire and fire based on merit is far from a panacea.  By definition, charters are free from a number of similarly-bad local and contractual regulations, but still even the successful ones struggle.  Local, state and federal ordinances and regulations are still in force, many of which are specifically hostile to charters.  The regulatory forces affecting schools are by no means laser-focused on doing right by the kids.

Teachers unions assert that contractual provisions are no biggie.  The problem is that kids and their families are getting worse.  You can’t make great cars, clothes, buildings without good materials.  Increasingly, dysfunctional families send emotionally chaotic or even feral kids to school.  And it’s true that all too often home support is thin, if not completely lacking.  Kids’ addictions to electronic sitters, sedatives and time-wasters are undermining their ability to read, never mind pay attention in school.  The unions are not wrong about this.

But to use the troubles of the kids themselves as an excuse for the failures of the education industry is wrong.  Education’s problems are many and across sectors.  Every single issue needs to be addressed.  But we can certainly start with the glaringly obvious places where we see contracts, policies or laws serving adult interests, not the students’.

So celebrate the Vergara decision as a small, important victory.  But don’t think for a moment that the kids are even remotely out of the woods.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

, , , , ,

Leave a comment

Time to Change Rhode Island’s Pink-Slip Policy

Published by — Rhode Island Legislators, Stop Ruining Four Months of School

Last year on March 1, the City of Woonsocket, RI, laid off all its public school teachers, spreading considerable misery around town.

The year before that, also on March 1, Providence pink-slipped each of their nearly 2,000 teachers.  And, as is usually the case with RI’s winter layoffs, every single teacher was hired back again by fall.

The year before that, Central Falls got national attention by laying off its high school teachers on, you guessed it, March 1.

Are you seeing an ugly pattern here?  Rhode Island law — Title 16, Section 13 — mandates that any teacher who might need to be let go, come September, must be notified by March 1.  Districts must lay off anyone and everyone who might be affected by a worst-case budget scenario, or risk over-spending in the fall.

Rhode Island’s state budget is due July 1, but delays are common.  With the State’s fiscal decisions in hand, cities and towns’ can finally firm up their budgets.  In February, schools have no clue what their September enrollment will be, what programs will change, how many teachers will retire, and so forth.  Totally bass ackwards.

The annual ocean of pink slips induces a giant, statewide bummer for teachers, students and their families.  For four more months of school, teachers soldier on, nurturing students in an atmosphere of impending doom.

Does this sound like a law that promotes academic health?  Or achievement?

Supposedly, the March 1 law gives terminated teachers time to look for other jobs.  In fact, the teacher job market only heats up much later, more like June.

The story in Woonsocket was that massive incompetence in the schools’ finance office had put the town in fiscal shambles.  Laying off the teachers didn’t improve the immediate fiscal situation at all, but it had to be done.

In Providence, a big drop in student enrollment partly drove the mass layoffs.  The new Mayor declared a “category five fiscal hurricane,” which meant the City couldn’t afford to run many partially-empty, inefficient schools.  But which buildings needed the most repairs?  Which consolidations made most sense?  Such decisions take time.  Again, every teacher returned eventually, but many were re-deployed to other schools.

Note the variety in these stories.  It was the feds who designated Central Falls High School as among the 5 percent lowest-performing in the state.  The feds demanded that districts with such schools choose one of four radical-change models.  When the schools’ union and administration could not agree on the specifics of a model, the March 1 deadline forced administration to maximize its flexibility with a mass layoff.  Mind you, the feds caused dozens of schools across the nation to lay off and sometimes fire masses of teachers.  So the only reason RI’s nasty episode made national news was that it was the first such.  Again, all teachers were re-hired, but March 1′s pressure left totally unnecessary wounds.

In the state tied for the highest unemployment rate and only one of two states losing population, stories of struggle, such as those above, will likely continue.

Most states’ deadlines, if they even have such a law, are set for late May or June — although California bums their teachers out on March 15th.

Massachusetts, the nation’s educational darling according to their marvelous NAEP scores, has a June 15th date.  June 15th leaves only a bit more than a week for being upset.  MA kids get a full year of non-depressed instruction.

People wonder how Rhode Island can lavish so much money and effort on school reform, but have so little to show for it.

As he has every year since taking office, Senator Louis DiPalma (D) has submitted a bill (2013-S 0049) to move the hated date to June 1.

He says, “This is no small thing.  It’s hard for me to fathom why anyone would be against the bill.  I have yet to hear a teacher say that the March 1 date is right.  The consternation it causes!  And for what reason?   It doesn’t need to happen.”

Rep. Ruggiero (D) has a companion bill in the House (2013-H 5066).

There’s still a month before March 1.  No one supports the March 1 deadline.  Legislators could get these bills to a vote asap.  If there are objections, let them come forward and say what the objections are.

If not, give the state a huge gift of uninterrupted teaching and learning.  Spare the school Human Resource Offices the expense of getting the pink slips out and the pain of fielding fretful phone calls.  Avoid all the screamingly obvious damage done by this bad law.

Be heroes to kids, teachers and the state’s emerging workforce.

Or risk more mass misery.  As DiPalma put it, “God forbid there’s another Woonsocket, and we (the Legislature) could have stopped it!”

It’s a no-brainer.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

, ,

Leave a comment