Spotlight Exclusives

Here Comes the Cliff۝: How Will Poor and Minority Students Fare?

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Much has been written about how urban school systems are hard-wired in ways that shortchange poor and minority students.

The most recent example is a policy that lay dormant in labor contracts for years, only to take center stage as districts began facing budget gaps: reductions in force (RIF).

Here’s how it works: when budget gaps emerge, districts seek staff reductions, which in turn triggers seniority-based layoff agreements (dubbed “last in, first out” or LIFO) where the most junior teachers are the first to get pink slips. Since high-minority schools tend to have more junior teachers, a disproportionate share of teachers in these schools is let go. And the district’s remaining teachers are often reshuffled across schools.

In a paper released last year, Cristina Sepe and I studied the extent to which poor and minority schools are affected more by LIFO policies than other schools in the same district. We examined teacher staffing databases from large California districts, identifying those teachers that would be laid off in a significant RIF.

We found that poor and minority students would be hit hardest. According to the study, “[i]f significant layoffs were pursued in response to budget deficits faced by districts, our analysis suggests that the highest-minority schools would lose 60 percent more teachers (or 4.8 more layoffs per hundred teachers) than would the schools with the fewest minority students.”

Does it matter? Some might argue that swapping out a junior teacher for one from across the district might not be such a big deal. And yet, the worry is that more “churn” in teachers does have a negative effect on a school’s ability to do business. Higher rates of churn mean relationships between teachers and families are lost.

For principals, changing out the faculty means starting over on school-based professional development, staff working relationships, etc. And as we’ve learned from some districts, those teachers who were reassigned may be unhappy in their new assignments. It’s not much of a stretch to think that all of these additional factors work together to further destabilize schools with high turnover, to the detriment of their students.

How have schools fared thus far? Beginning in the 2008-9 school year, districts saw unprecedented dips in state and local revenues. In 2009-10, for the first time in two decades, total employment in public education dropped from the previous year.

Many districts took advantage of attrition and hiring freezes to reduce their workforce, while in others, more aggressive reductions resulted in pink slips for some teachers. That said, the first and then second federal education stimulus funds worked to alleviate mass layoffs, and in some cases allowed districts to call back those teachers who’d been laid off.

But school districts aren’t over the hump yet. With federal stimulus funds running out in many states this year, and state and local revenues projected to remain stubbornly low, districts may be about to hit the “cliff”the biggest single year drop in revenues thus far. If so, we should expect another, and perhaps more aggressive, activation of workforce reduction policies. And that means our highest minority schools should expect to get hit the hardest.

What are the alternatives? Across the country, advocates are putting the pressure on to end LIFO policies, and instead make layoff decisions on the basis of teacher effectiveness. And such pressure has been working in places like Arizona, where lawmakers moved quickly to prevent layoffs based on seniority.

Debates are ongoing in other localities and are often embroiled in debates about how best to identify teacher effectiveness. Not surprisingly, the reaction by some has been that where reliable teacher evaluation systems aren’t yet in place, LIFO is the only “fair” way to proceed with workforce reductions.

Other districts are seeking ways to avert workforce reduction altogether. Districts can employ other budget closing strategies, such as concessions on wages and benefits, or even furloughs. Certainly none of these strategies is painless, but depending on the district context and the mix of schools, there may be some justification for doing what’s possible to sidestep layoffs.

Districts closer to implementing a more robust teacher evaluation system might try to get by with no layoffs until the improved teacher evaluation system is up and running and can be used to exit a small number of lowest performers each year. In these cases, the concessions or furloughs could work as a bridge to a time when workforce reduction on a much smaller scale happens each year as part of more robust teacher evaluation.

Stay tuned. This spring it all starts again as the Great Recession yields another year of budget shortfalls and cuts. While there is probably no one universal recommendation on how best to close budget gaps, districts should weigh in the disproportionate impact of seniority-based layoffs on high-poverty and high-minority schools.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Marguerite Roza is a senior data and economic advisor at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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