District Trendline

January 2015: Layoffs

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District Trendline, previously known as Teacher Trendline, provides actionable research to improve district personnel policies that will strengthen the teacher workforce. Want evidence-based guidance on policies and practices that will enhance your ability to recruit, develop, and retain great teachers delivered right to your inbox each month? Subscribe here.

Our Trendline series kicks off 2015 with a look at teacher layoff policies in the largest districts across the country.

Layoffs are different from dismissals; they occur when districts face economic difficulty and have to conduct a reduction in force in order to balance the budget books. Often, districts base layoffs on seniority in order to conduct the process in a transparent way; but seniority-based layoffs have had no shortage of opposition from education advocacy groups.

As of 2014, 30 states require districts to factor in seniority at some level—either as one of multiple factors or the sole factor—when determining layoffs during a reduction in force. An additional 19 states leave layoff criteria to the discretion of each district.

Tenure in layoffs

While 48 percent of large districts require that teacher tenure status determine which teachers get laid off during a reduction in force, a sizeable number (40 percent) either explicitly do not, or they happen to be located in a state which prohibits them from doing so because they have eliminated tenure.

Of the nine districts where tenure does not exist, eight are in Florida. The Sunshine State eliminated tenure and moved to a system of annual contracts in 2011. Aspire Public Schools, a charter network with most of its schools in California, is the only other school system in our database that does not have tenure.

In one district, Birmingham City Schools, the order in which teachers are laid off is left up to its board of education. The district's board policy contains vague language which states that its school board determines whether or not non-tenured teachers are laid off before tenured teachers. It specifies that teachers are identified for layoffs by any "justifiable, measurable and calculable objective measures including seniority and performance."

Seniority in layoffs

When we look beyond non-tenured versus tenured teachers during the layoff process, the criteria for laying off teachers who have already earned tenure are more mixed. While 50 large districts make seniority the sole or preponderant criterion for laying off tenured teachers, 47 districts identify tenured teachers for layoffs based in part or solely on performance. Another 11 districts use a combination of performance and seniority.

There are a few districts which account for teacher performance during the layoff process in particularly unique ways. In Wichita Public Schools, after non-tenured teachers are laid off, teachers in remediation are the first to be identified for layoffs amongst tenured teachers. Clark County School District (NV), a district that does not lay off non-tenured before tenured teachers, also has a unique policy: the first teachers in line for layoffs are those who have been suspended for more than five days within the two previous contract years; next are those who were rated unsatisfactory in each of the last two contract years; only after these two groups of teachers are laid off is seniority factored into the process.

The only district in the Teacher Contract Database that is not included in the chart above is Charleston County School District (SC) where the board policy merely states that the superintendent will establish guidelines for a layoff during a reduction in force "when and if the need arises." 

Seniority can be determined one of two different ways: a teacher's level of seniority relative to all other teachers in the district OR a teacher's level of seniority relative only to other teachers in the school where he or she is currently assigned. The vast majority of large school districts (70 percent) determine seniority at the district level.

Only three districts—Chicago Public Schools, the District of Columbia Public Schools and Green Dot Public Schools—determine seniority levels for teachers at the school level. In the District of Columbia, a local school personnel committee makes a recommendation for teachers to be laid off and the district's superintendent acts on the recommendation.

When seniority is determined at the district level, layoffs can have a disproportionate impact on schools, particularly lower-performing schools which experience high turnover. For example,  in 2008, budget cuts caused a reduction in force in staff across the Los Angeles Unified School District(LAUSD); but because seniority was determined at the district level, novice teachers concentrated in a handful of schools serving a predominately high-poverty community were disproportionately laid off. In some schools, more than half of the teachers received pink slips. The ACLU took notice, filing a class action lawsuit against California and LAUSD in what is now known as Reed v. State of California. In 2011, the Court approved a settlement that exempts up to 45 LAUSD schools from the district-wide layoff process in order to prevent the disparate impact of this policy. This is a work-around solution at best, but it addressed the immediate issue created with this kind of policy.

Using school-level seniority reduces the disproportionate impact on specific schools, but it introduces other complexities. Using school-level seniority can discourage teachers from transferring from one school to another because, once a teacher joins the staff of a new school, he or she would have the least seniority and be the first in line in the event of a layoff.

Recall rights after a layoff

When teachers are laid off due to a reduction in force across a district, the teacher contract or school board policy often requires that the district call those teachers back to work once retirements and resignations have been taken into account and budgets are balanced.

When hiring new teachers, nearly 73 percent of the country's largest districts give recall rights or preference to teachers who were laid off during a reduction in force. Recall rights act as a "right of first refusal" for teachers, where the most senior teacher is offered the first vacancy available, and if he/she rejects it, the next available vacancy is offered; preference for teachers in this process means only that laid off teachers are prioritized in the rehiring process, but they are not guaranteed a position.

Of the 87 districts that do provide previously laid off teachers preference or recall rights for vacancies, about 83 percent (72 districts) require a mandatory recall in inverse order of layoffs. In other words, the most senior laid-off teacher is first in line for a guaranteed spot in any available vacancy. One of those districts—Caddo Parish Public Schools (LA)—explicitly states that while teachers must be recalled according to this rule, this policy does not apply to laid off teachers who were previously rated ineffective.

The remaining 15 of these 87 districts give preference to laid off teachers but do not guarantee them a placement.

Of the 13 districts that do not offer laid off teachers either recall rights or preference based on seniority, three districts explicitly state that laid off teachers are given preference for available positions based on teachers' performance: Detroit Public Schools, Denver Public Schools and Jefferson County Public Schools(CO).

Many of the districts (78 districts) that offer teachers preference or recall rights, define in contract or board policy how long this preferential treatment applies. Almost two-thirds of these districts allow tenured teachers to maintain recall rights or preference for two to four years after they are laid off.

Dayton City School District (OH), Jefferson County Public Schools (KY), Pittsburgh Public Schools and Toledo Public Schools allow laid off, tenured teachers recall rights/preference indefinitely. In other words, these teachers can remain on unpaid leave until they are placed in a vacancy.

 On the other hand, out of the thirteen districts that do not provide teachers recall rights or preference based on seniority, a few clearly state how long teachers remain on the district's internal hiring list. Detroit Public Schools gives preference to laid-off teachers during the rehiring process based on teachers' performance for a maximum of three-years. In contrast, Denver Public Schools and Jefferson County Public Schools (CO) offer tenured teachers one year (or two hiring cycles) to find a position through mutual consent assignment, after which they are placed on unpaid leave indefinitely.

While most large districts still use seniority to dictate a significant portion, if not all, of who gets laid off, we predict that more districts will begin to use performance measures in this process as more states' commitments to implementing improved teacher evaluations kick in.