Chicago's Lesson in Layoffs

Article excerpt

Byline: Pat Wingert and Evan Thomas

Should the newest teachers go?

Education reformers were feeling optimistic. With President Obama's Race to the Top competition, which offers financial rewards to states willing to hold teachers accountable for their students' performance, they've made real progress in weeding out poor teachers.

But now the reformers have spotted a dark cloud on the horizon. State budgets, particularly in badly managed big states like California, New York, and New Jersey, are out of control. Although Congress managed to avoid massive teacher layoffs last year with federal aid, the stimulus money is running out, and congressmen do not appear to be in the mood for more deficit spending. That means teacher layoffs are coming--perhaps more than 100,000 nationwide. In most states, union contracts or state law requires they be done by seniority, so the newest teachers are pink-slipped, no matter how good they are. " 'Last in, first out' virtually guarantees that all our great, young teachers will be out of a job, and some of the least effective will stay in the classroom," says Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago.

Such layoffs disproportionately hurt students attending the lowest-performing schools, because they tend to have the highest proportion of new teachers. In some Los Angeles schools last year, such cuts wiped out 50 to 70 percent of the faculty.

One surprising solution may come from Knowles's home city of Chicago. The state of Illinois is one of the worst-run in the country, rivaling even California for its unwillingness to take the steps necessary to stanch the flow of red ink. As a result, Chicago is facing pressure to cut 900 teacher jobs. Under the usual union contract, the last hired were to be the first fired, competent or not.

But the Chicago School Board, handpicked by the Windy City's tough-minded Mayor Richard M. Daley, has interpreted a new state law as giving it the power to fire the city's 200 most incompetent teachers first.

While this might seem like common sense, it's heresy to Karen Lewis, the newly elected head of the Chicago teachers' union, who is considering going to court to fight the attack on seniority. …