Why Providence pink-slipped all its teachers

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As everyone is aware, districts are planning to lay off teachers in unprecedented proportions this summer. In Los Angeles, 5,000 teachers--11 percent of its workforce--are potentially on the chopping block under the district's recently approved "doomsday budget." In New York City, 6 percent of the teaching force is at risk of losing their jobs.

But Providence, Rhode Island takes the cake for issuing pink slips to all of its teachers.

It's not as crazy as you might think, as Providence finds itself without any other alternatives, given the intersection of big changes made by the state to seniority practices and state law about notifying teachers of pending layoffs.

Rhode Island state law requires districts to notify their tenured teachers by March 1 that they may be the subject of a pending layoff, too soon in the opinion of districts. By that point in time, districts don't know what their budgets will be and how many teachers will have to go. But districts didn't care much in previous years, since seniority was the only factor used to decide layoffs and tenured teachers were rarely impacted. But now districts have to accommodate a directive from Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, essentially ending the practice of seniority-based assignments. Though her advisory does not substantively address layoffs, she notes the impact it would have on a district: "I understand that this may well have implications for personnel decisions you make prior to March 1 deadline for layoff notices."

To make matters more complicated, districts don't really know which teachers are effective, at least in a reliable way, since the state's new evaluation system is still in development. So deciding who gets laid off is causing all sorts of headaches.

Bottom line: The approach in Providence is intended to buy the district time. When making sensible personnel decisions in the face of layoffs, having a scalpel at your disposal, instead of a bludgeon, is the goal.