3.10 Tenure and Seniority
For their first two years, new teachers in California can be dismissed “at will” by their employer – usually a school district. After two years of employment, however, teachers in most districts enjoy strong dismissal process protections commonly referred to as “tenure.” A decline in student enrollment or funding can create a flurry of springtime “pink slips,” but seniority is usually the key element for determining the pecking order, at minimum as a tie-breaker.
Reforms that affect “tenure” usually seek to delay the onset of strong dismissal process requirements, or to streamline the steps involved in selectively dismissing an underperforming teacher. Dismissals for cause are quite rare in California due to the complexity and expense of the required process.
Rather than pursue a lengthy dismissal process, it is common for principals to use a more expedient solution to rid themselves of unwanted staff: they make a deal. If a poorly performing teacher agrees to move to another school, the principal agrees to give her or him a satisfactory rating. This practice, known as the dance of the lemons, is colorfully derided in Davis Guggenheim’s 2010 film Waiting for Superman.
In 2011, former Washington, DC Secretary of Education Michelle Rhee established Students First, an advocacy organization that made reform of tenure and seniority policies among its top priorities, with particular emphasis on the practice of seniority-based layoffs, also known as last-hired-first-fired or last-in-first-out (LIFO) policies.
The use of seniority as a factor in teacher dismissal came sharply into question in the lean budgets of 2010. The ACLU challenged the constitutionality of seniority-based provisions on the basis that such policies have a disparate impact on students in poverty. In 2011, California schools sent layoff notices to about 20,000 teachers on a seniority basis, and generally did not renew first- and second-year teachers.
In 2012, Students Matter sponsored a set of lawsuits against the state of California, seeking to strike down state laws that codify tenure and seniority practices. The basis of the suit is that these practices thwart students’ right to an education, which is guaranteed in the state constitution. The complaint makes for interesting reading.
Seniority and tenure policies, normally a dull hum in the background noise of education reform priorities, rose to importance in 2010 because economic changes drove teacher layoffs in relatively large numbers.
Education Trust West explained the impact of seniority-based employment rules coherently in its report Victims of the Churn. The report criticizes “bumping” rights with particular vigor (see graphic).
The next primer will turn to one of the least understood elements of teacher compensation: pensions.