NEW YORK — State lawmakers from Illinois to Tennessee are considering laws that could change what it means to be a teacher, as labor policy has become the heart of a pitched education debate — one in which each side claims that the other doesn’t put students’ interests first.
Facing curtailed budgets and a push from the federal government for teacher accountability, many states are considering and passing measures that would limit teachers’ collective bargaining rights and strip those with years of experience of job security.
Laws that alter collective-bargaining rights or the hiring and firing of teachers have passed in Wisconsin, Georgia, Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Arizona. Last year, Washington, D.C. changed seniority rules through district contract negotiations. Recent bills introduced in Illinois and Tennessee show promise of passing. On the other hand, similar initiatives in states such as California have fallen flat for now, while New York City‘s mayor tries to breathe new life into his own proposal as massive teacher layoffs loom.
Teachers have a lot at stake: during budget shortfalls, union rules generally require that the least-experienced teachers be laid off first, a policy know as “last in, first out,” or LIFO. New laws would end LIFO and tie layoffs and pay to performance instead of seniority. Also at stake for teachers is the right to bargain collectively to negotiate their salaries and benefits.
Opponents of the new laws say seniority and collective bargaining rights attract talent to the teaching profession. Obliterating them, they argue, deals a blow to the teaching profession, and in turn the quality of education students receive in the classroom.
On the other side, reform proponents assert that higher standards for teachers based on standardized testing scores will lead to better student performance — and save money.
“This is entirely driven by budget issues,” said David Bloomfield, former general counsel for the New York City Department of Education. “It’s accountability meets budget crisis. It’s a phony issue because the driver is money, rather than quality,” he added.