Top teacher’s layoff raises school funding issues

The Sacramento City Unified School District received some unwanted publicity recently when its “Teacher of The Year,” Michelle Apperson, was awarded a layoff notice. Her teaching position was one of hundreds in the district that were cut because of budget reductions.

Apperson’s layoff launched a thousand headlines, columns, and the on-cue outraged commentary that talk shows are especially good at.

Besides being painful economically and personally to Apperson, it was, after all, a major embarrassment for the school system, no matter how fast or far it is spun by commentators of any persuasion. Even to those without agendas there is something clearly wrong when the community’s best teacher is canned.

Still, as Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association, says, “Teacher layoffs are always painful, but the attention focused on this particular one is a distraction from the fundamental question of adequate funding for classroom education. It is a serious problem in our state that we are not going to solve with layoffs.”

She is right, of course, and now that the “Teacher of The Year” dustup is over we have a chance to look at the economics and the economic history behind the layoffs and the headlines.

The teacher layoffs in Sacramento were forced by a familiar problem: The school district was running out of money. When the Apperson lost her job, though, the Sacramento story turned the spotlight on how layoff decisions are made about who goes and who stays.

Where workers are represented by a union, the seniority system is invariably written into the collective bargaining agreement as the method used in the event of a layoff. Sometimes called LIFO, or last-in-first-out, the seniority system means that the most recently hired workers are the first to go if there is a layoff.

In effect, the seniority system means that there is no decision to be made about who stays and who goes. In a layoff it is a matter strictly decided by date of hire.

Seniority is one of the fundamental tenets of organized labor, in no small part because it is embedded in its history. While wages were, and are, the most visible part of the unions’ battles with management, job security in various forms has also been a traditional issue in negotiations.

The labor movement’s commitment to seniority as the foundation of job security has its roots in the employment practices of a market capitalism where labor was far less skilled, and far less valued, than in today’s workforce. Economic and business cycles meant that workers could not be protected from layoffs, but at least the seniority system would give the most protection to those who had given the most to the company.

That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, of course, like most systems it is something less than that. It does have the considerable merit of being fair, in the sense that everyone knows how the system works. The calendar doesn’t play favorites.

The seniority system, however, does tend to dismiss the energy, enthusiasm and new skills of more recent hires and retain the “we’ve always done it that way” people. In a down cycle, this tends to mummify any organization … with predictable results.

At the heart of the matter, though, the pecking order for layoffs is not a decisive factor. In both the private and public sectors, layoffs are a survival mechanism, not a management tool. The problems with our educational system existed before these layoffs and tossing out the seniority system will not fix them.

From an economics standpoint, these problems are not likely to be solved until we address the organizational wreckage left by the collision between governments’ fantasy finance and unions’ pursuit of compensation and workplace control.

In California, where fantasy finance is done best, the economic dimensions of that wreckage are most visible, but public education is facing serious economic problems in most states.

The public education environment is today populated almost entirely by tireless “we want,” and “we demand” groups. In our state, for example, the Legislature has to figure out a way to fund education so that it complies with the state constitution, and the state Supreme Court’s order … and then face the disappointed wanters and demanders.

It is an interesting challenge, from an economic as well as a political standpoint, and in the end, we might not like the solutions to the K-12 funding puzzle any more than we like the endlessly climbing tuition of higher education.

There is still time for our state to address these problems and preserve the spirit, if not the entire structure, of public education. The calendar really doesn’t play favorites, though, and our window of opportunity won’t stay open forever.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.

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