Teacher bailout, teacher reform?

In weighing another bailout for teachers, Congress has the opportunity to motivate states to change seniority rules that restrict flexibility in hiring and firing.

President Obama is trying to save the Gulf Coast, and also jobs – particularly up to 300,000 jobs of teachers who could face layoffs due to tight state budgets.

The president wants Congress to help cash-strapped states fend off this layoff wave. But if Congress merely funnels more money to the states without asking for anything in return, it will have missed a huge opportunity to further education reform – in this case, fixing seniority rules that limit firing flexibility.

America has learned from the administration’s $4.3 billion “Race to the Top” contest that the lure of more federal funds motivates states and local districts to enact education reforms. Even though only two states, Delaware and Tennessee, won funding so far, many states changed laws and practices to improve school accountability and choice in the hopes that they, too, would qualify.

They did things like lift the cap on the number of permitted charter schools, set up data systems to measure student performance, and tie teacher evaluations to student achievement. States that didn’t win the first round of contest funds are working hard to qualify for the second round.

Similarly, any “teacher bailout” that Congress might pass should come with strings attached. House Democrats are now considering putting about $10 billion toward saving teacher jobs, a slimmed-down version of a $23 billion Senate bill that was recently felled by strong antideficit winds. The Senate version included no incentives related to seniority reform. The House version, which would be paid for by unspent Recovery Act money, should correct that mistake.

Why? Because union contracts and state laws that dictate “last hired, first fired” take no account of teacher performance. They assume that senior teachers are automatically the better teachers, when that is not always the case. At the same time, because new teachers earn less, it takes more of them to be laid off to close a budget gap. Often, these new teachers are in the most troubled urban schools or have been specially recruited to open new schools.

New York City, for instance, has been closing large, underperforming public schools and replacing them with small, new ones. Typically, those schools are populated with young, new teachers. Unless seniority rules change, those schools face a disproportionately large number of layoffs.

Teacher unions defend the seniority system by saying it protects their members from capricious firing. The fix to that problem is to discourage capricious firing, not protect an entire class of teachers based merely on years served.

And how to protect against wanton firings? By instituting a merit system that ties teacher performance to measurable student achievement – as well as other indicators that acknowledge that good teaching is not just about good test scores. (The difficult task of letting teachers go should be based on their low performance, not the size of their salaries.)

Sen. Tom Harkin, the Democrat from Iowa who sponsored the teacher funding bill that failed, rejected attaching the seniority issue to his bill, even though it was pushed by education reformers. He argued that time is of the essence, that states need this money now. They can’t wait for Congress to debate seniority, or for state legislatures to make changes.

The House could address that concern by releasing some money now based on a commitment to reform, and the rest after reform. If not, better to forgo a bill altogether. The United States ranks in the bottom third of developed countries in terms of student performance – yet it spends more per pupil than any of these countries.

Broadly speaking, the issue is not money. Simply shoveling more cash to the states will not improve learning.

[Editor's note: The original version misstated the state that Sen. Harkin represents.]

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