May 31, 2010, 6:00AM
View full sizeTeachers' seniority rights are under fire from public officials and policy experts who say experience and effectiveness don't always go hand in hand.
The grip seniority holds on schools has gained attention as money runs short and education leaders, including Cleveland's, slash jobs by the hundreds. Its effects also come into play as urban school districts wrestle with how to place the right teachers in schools serving low-income, or so-called "hard to serve," populations.
Cleveland schools Chief Executive Eugene Sanders has acknowledged a desire to dismantle the district's seniority system as part of difficult contract negotiations going on now. Union leaders, wary of giving up seniority rights without a trustworthy alternative, do not deny that the issue could lead to a strike.
Barring an agreement on concessions, Cleveland is set to ax 546 teachers in June. The cuts will sweep out large blocs of staff in 10 popular "innovation schools," where side agreements with the teachers union allow principals to disregard seniority in hiring, reaching outside the system if they think it's necessary. Such newer teachers will be among the first to go.
One of the innovation schools, Warner Girls Leadership Academy, a single-gender elementary school, will say goodbye to 11 of its 18 teachers. The vacancies will have to be filled from within the union.
Principal Lesley Jones Sessler puts a brave face on the situation, saying the school will persevere.
"We can still be successful," she said. "Nowhere was it written that my teachers would be protected from something like this."
But foundations that invested millions of dollars in the innovation schools are dismayed. The cuts also may disappoint corporate and state officials who have sunk money into the initiative.
Several states have scrapped or are considering scrapping the "last hired, first fired" philosophy that determines layoff order in most of the nation's largest school districts.
The New Teacher Project, a national nonprofit that helps states and schools place high-quality teachers in urban districts, has called for alternatives to "quality-blind" layoffs.
A report the group issued in March claimed support from teachers, saying majorities surveyed in two large, unnamed urban districts ranked classroom management, teacher attendance and other considerations as more important than years on the job.
The National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonpartisan research group, is proposing a blended set of layoff criteria that weakens seniority's sway. Recommendations include cutting first-year teachers while making exceptions for others based on performance.
Layoff by seniority remains the law in Ohio, with a 2005 amendment that prohibits districts and unions from agreeing to waive the restriction. Gov. Ted Strickland's 2008 budget bill proposed deleting the amendment. The House agreed, but the provision did not make the final legislation.
Even if Cleveland teachers could waive seniority in layoffs, Van Keating, an official with the Ohio School Boards Association, does not think they would show much enthusiasm for the idea.
"You're talking about the main reason teachers unions are there -- to get more money and job security," said Keating, who assists school boards with labor negotiations. "It would take an awful lot of fiscal pressure and some political pressure to make the unions want to give that up."
Seniority-based layoffs have a disproportionate effect on schools with high poverty and minority enrollment, according to a new study of 15 California districts that was conducted by the Center on Reinventing Public Education. The center said less-experienced teachers tend to be assigned to such schools. A county court this month barred layoffs at three Los Angeles schools after civil-rights group said heavy cuts would violate the state's guarantee of an equal education.
Layoffs aside, concerns remain about filling positions based on seniority.
Strickland's original budget bill included a Cleveland-only section, later dropped, that would have allowed Sanders to assign teachers "to meet the needs of students and the district's mission."
Sanders claimed that would give him the right to bypass seniority. The governor's spokeswoman, Amanda Wurst, recently acknowledged that the wording was drafted after Strickland consulted with Sanders and Mayor Frank Jackson. But no decisions had been made on how that affected seniority, she said in an e-mail.
Control over staff appointments is key to turning around struggling urban schools, experts say. They argue for giving principals latitude so they can build a culture where kids learn and teachers, at any stage of their careers, want to work.
Daniel Weisberg formerly was chief labor executive for the New York City Department of Education and contributed to a policy that fills positions by "mutual consent" of schools and teachers.
He is now vice president of the New Teacher Project. The group's 2009 report, "The Widget Effect," criticized the treatment of teachers as interchangeable parts.
"How do you make sure the kids who most desperately need effective teachers get them?" Weisberg said in an interview. "Every single hiring decision has to be made based on mutual consent. This is not an assembly line in which everyone can basically do the same job at the same level."
New York's policy, adopted in 2005, found strong support among teachers and did not lead to mass departures from high-poverty schools, as feared, according to a study published three years later by the New Teacher Project. Similar rules have recently been adopted or proposed in Portland, Ore., Washington, D.C., and Colorado.
Cleveland Teachers Union leaders have budged on seniority in the past, and not just at the innovation schools. They dropped the requirement last summer at other buildings, allowing principals to interview candidates for job openings and pick the teachers they thought fit best.
But union officers say they are reluctant to grant a blanket waiver. They fear giving too much authority to principals who might make unjust, arbitrary decisions, or tying their futures to test scores that urban districts struggle to raise.
Several Cleveland teachers contacted by email defended their seniority rights and said older teachers can be just as energetic and creative as younger peers. One said veteran teachers are more skilled at keeping order.
But teachers also expressed impatience with incompetent or indifferent instructors and complained that administrators are unwilling to fire them or too bound by red tape to quickly remove them.
"I hope that you can make one thing clear -- no one dislikes or resents a bad teacher more than dedicated teachers!!!" wrote a teacher who asked for anonymity.
Former Cleveland Teachers Union President Richard DeColibus says that of all the rights in the contract, seniority is the one he would fight hardest to preserve. He said it's a fundamental defense against random firing and places the primary burden for a school's operation where it belongs -- on the principal.
"The principal sets the tone," said DeColibus, who retired in 2004. "Your job is to take the same mix every other school has and make it better. That's leadership."
Teachers who support seniority rights as a district's primary screening mechanism have an ally who used to sit on the management side of the bargaining table.
Thomas Ash, an executive with Ohio's Buckeye Association of School Administrators, served 21 years as superintendent of the East Liverpool district and the Mid-Ohio Educational Service Center.
Standardized tests and potentially subjective appraisals are not the most reliable gauges of performance, Ash said. He prefers seniority.
"It's a nice, objective measure," he said.