Tuesday, June 15, 2010

About those teacher layoffs

Charles Lane attacks what he calls "the myth of teacher layoffs."
Don’t believe the hype.

Start with that scary number of 300,000 teacher layoffs, which has been bandied about in numerous newspaper articles. The sources for it are interested parties: teachers unions and school administrators, whose national organizations counted layoff warning notices that have already been sent out this spring and extrapolated from there. Notably, however, even these sources usually describe the threatened positions as “education jobs” – not teachers. That’s because the figures actually include not only kindergarten through 12th grade classroom instructors, but also support staff (bus drivers, custodians, et al.) and even community college faculty. And 300,000 is the upper end of a range that could be as low as 100,000. Nationwide, there are about 3.2 million K-12 public school teachers.

Moreover, springtime layoff notices are a notoriously unreliable guide to actual job cuts in the fall, because rules and regulations in many public school systems require administrators to notify every person who might conceivably be laid off -- whether they actually expect to fire them or not. As the New York Times recently reported: “Everywhere, school officials tend to overestimate the potential for layoffs at this time of year, to ensure that every employee they might have to dismiss receives the required notifications.”

Given these facts, it’s unclear how the bill’s supporters came up with its $23 billion price tag. It works out to about $77,000 per job saved in the 300,000-layoff scenario, but $230,000 per job if only 100,000 jobs are at risk. Maybe that’s why the bill’s fine print allows states to spend any excess funds left over from education hiring on other state employees. By the way, the bill distributes funds to states according to how many residents they have, not how many threatened layoffs.
Of course, my heart goes out to anyone who is laid off. But in a time of recession when lots of people are losing their jobs, why should "education jobs" ? And actually, as Lane points out, the education sector is suffering much less than other parts of the economy.
But what about class size? Well, 300,000 teacher layoffs would increase the national student-teacher ratio in public schools from 15.3 to 1, to 16.6 to 1 – roughly where it was in 1997. And 100,000 teacher layoffs would increase it to 15.6 to 1 – the 2005 level. Neither number portends educational apocalypse, especially when you consider how uncertain the links are between class size and student achievement. Student-teacher ratios shrank by roughly 10 percent nationally between 1996 and 2008, but reading scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress stayed essentially flat. Newark, for example, has a student-teacher ratio of only 10.7 to 1 – and the poorest test-score results of any public school system in New Jersey. (See original for links.)
What is truly disturbing is how the teachers are chosen who are laid off since most school systems have to adopt a last hired, last fired approach. That is what Michelle Rhee has tried to change with her recently approved teacher contract. It's been disheartening to hear of some former students who went through the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program which is geared to educate the best and brightest to be N.C. teachers and then hear that they couldn't find jobs because of freezes here in hiring due to the budgetary situation. It sure would be nice if some of the deadwood that we all know are still teaching in our schools and have prayed that our own children don't get were the ones let go instead of some new, enthusiastic teacher.

What is so very irritating about this push for $23 billion to be spent for paying educators is that the Democrats don't propose to follow their own, much touted pay-as-you-go budgeting to pay for it. And they have no plan what to do next year when the same situation might roll around if the economy doesn't improve more. This paying for local "education jobs" could become as regular a feature of our federal budgeting as renewals for the supposedly temporary unemployment insurance have become.