A tale of three cities

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Budget cuts are pushing thousands of Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Chicago teachers out of the classroom. While this is a sad and all too familiar story, it raises the important question of who is the first to be laid off.

Wisconsin law specifies that layoffs are a matter of local control. Despite the leeway that state law grants, Milwaukee persists in taking a last hired, first fired approach in setting layoffs, with actual teacher performance not even a consideration. But Milwaukee's loss of possibly effective (if relatively junior) teachers could well be another Wisconsin district's gain.

In Philadelphia, effective teachers who happen to lack experience will suffer the same fate as those in every other school district in Pennsylvania, as state law mandates protecting teachers with seniority when a district has to make layoffs. Even those lucky enough to find a new position elsewhere in the state, barring a change in the law, will be back on the chopping block a year from now.

The recently passed Education Reform Act in Illinois (Senate Bill 7) specifies that qualifications, certifications, and performance evaluations all trump seniority in layoff decisions in all collective bargaining agreements struck after the law's passage. Unfortunately for the 1,000 teachers now looking for work, the current CTU contract in Chicago is not set to expire until June 30, 2012. But once this change takes hold, Chicago and other Illinois districts will have the ability to keep their top teachers, regardless of experience.

With nearly 2,500 classroom-experienced teachers looking for new positions because of layoffs in these three cities, simply targeting new hires is not the way to reduce payroll and improve the quality of education. Illinois has taken an important step, joining Colorado, Oklahoma, and Florida, among others, to prove that a state-level mandate focusing on performance in retaining teachers is possible. Why are other states willing to settle for less?

Graham Drake