Due to plummeting tax revenues, Governor Mike DeWine last week announced plans to slash state spending for the current fiscal year, ending June 30. Among the cost-cutting includes a $355 million hit to K–12 education, a roughly 3 percent reduction in education outlays. With the economy still swooning, legislators are mulling deeper cuts for 2020–21.
Although additional federal aid may soften the financial blow, it’s unlikely to entirely fill the budget holes. School officials still have major belt-tightening in their futures. Since payroll consumes the vast majority of school budgets, reducing personnel expenses is almost inevitable. Districts have various options to this end—e.g., across-the-board salary reductions or freezes to fringe benefits—but layoffs may be necessary too. Indeed, during the Great Recession, many districts addressed fiscal challenges this way, as nearly 300,000 school employees nationwide lost their jobs (about 4 percent of the K–12 workforce).
Unlike businesses, which tend to have broad discretion when downsizing, school districts typically have to follow detailed “reduction in force” procedures set forth in state statute and/or collective bargaining agreements with employee unions. In many states, these policies include a last-in, first-out (LIFO) provision that forces districts to lay off younger teachers, while protecting the jobs of those with more seniority. Education scholars and advocates, however, have flagged three concerns with this practice.
- It’s blind to quality. Many early-career educators are proving themselves in the classroom and becoming world-class teachers. But a LIFO rule puts these talented educators first on the firing line, rather than low-performers or those in less critical positions.
- It leads to more teachers being laid off. Because less experienced teachers are typically paid less, districts must part ways with more teachers to make a given budget reduction. This not only puts more teachers in jeopardy of job loss, but it also raises the prospect of larger class sizes to compensate for the smaller workforce.
- It may result in more churn in high-poverty schools. In large districts, a LIFO rule could disproportionately hurt the poorest schools, where young teachers are more likely to work and hence be dismissed. (Under Ohio law, district leadership is responsible for reducing the size of the workforce, not building principals.)
Commendably, several states don’t mandate a last-in, first-out process. Ohio, however, hasn’t followed suit: Under state law, non-tenured teachers—sure to be among the youngest in the workforce—must be dismissed before those with tenure are considered. Because Ohio teachers must be licensed for seven years before becoming eligible for tenure, there’s little chance that a district would ever need to consider laying off tenured teachers. Ohio’s long probationary period also has some interesting consequences: On the one hand, it puts high-performing teachers who have been working for the better part of the decade on the chopping block. On the other hand, it gives districts more flexibility to lay off a poor-performing “veteran”—say a sixth-year teacher—instead of a promising novice. Overall, however, the beneficiaries of Ohio’s version of LIFO are senior teachers who enjoy significant job protections during a reduction-in-force. This is true even if they’re less effective than their junior counterparts (remember, tenure status has nothing to do with classroom effectiveness).
Regrettably, due to timing issues and the likelihood that existing contracts would be grandfathered in, Ohio lawmakers likely cannot eliminate LIFO as districts make personnel decisions for the coming year. But they should nevertheless consider revisions to state law that would enable districts to protect all of their best teachers should the current fiscal challenges persist or when they arise again in the future. Two policy options would eliminate LIFO.
Option 1: Eliminate the requirement that districts give preference to tenured teachers in a reduction-in-force. State statute could be amended so that tenure status is not the primary factor in layoff decisions. In line with the policies of other states (e.g., Colorado, Florida, and Texas), Ohio law could instead require districts to dismiss teachers based on performance. In fact, state lawmakers could look to Florida law which reads:
Within the program areas requiring reduction, the employee with the lowest performance evaluations must be the first to be released; the employee with the next lowest performance evaluations must be the second to be released; and reductions shall continue in like manner until the needed number of reductions has occurred.
Language such as this would protect the jobs of high-performing teachers—including early-career educators without tenure—as Ohio districts would be required to first sever ties with their lowest performing teachers during a reduction-in-force. The downside of this option is that it still constrains district flexibility around layoffs, as there may be cases in which a lower-performing teacher might be preferred (for example, if she taught in a high-needs school or in hard-to-staff subject areas).
Option 2: Eliminate all regulations about how districts lay off employees, but prohibit reduction-in-force procedures from being a topic of collective bargaining. Ohio law could give district administration true “local control” over how they address reductions-in-force. In this case, state law would be silent regarding any specifics about which teachers are first laid off, whether by performance, tenure status, or seniority. However, to ensure that districts don’t simply bargain away this management right—and put into contract a seniority based system—lawmakers should also clarify that matters of reductions-in-force are not a permissible topic of collective bargaining. The upside of this option is that it would give districts, much like public charter and private schools, maximum discretion to decide how to downsize. The tradeoff is that a district may still in practice implement a seniority-based layoff process, thus failing to guarantee that the jobs of young, talented teachers are protected.
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In a recent article, one Northeast Ohio superintendent told the press, “We’re resolved to provide the highest quality of education possible for our Lakewood students.” That’s the right attitude in light of a budget crunch. By eliminating an archaic LIFO provision, state legislators could better empower district leaders to make personnel decisions that ensure that their best teachers are in the game—not sitting on the sidelines.