Teachers Across The Country Face Layoffs

Teacher contracts expire in many places Friday, and for many teachers, those contracts won't be picked back up. State budget deficits and increased cuts are taking their toll on school districts around the country. In Milwaukee, 354 teachers are going to be laid off. In Chicago, a thousand. Smaller school districts are losing positions too. Robert Siegel speaks with Sean Cavanagh, who covers state education policy for Education Week, about the cuts — and what they mean for the upcoming school year.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

For a lot of teachers around the country, today is their first day out of a job. Teacher contracts expired last night in many school districts. And state and city budget deficits have forced big cuts. In Milwaukee, 354 teachers are being laid off. In Chicago, a thousand; another thousand in Philadelphia.

American education is so decentralized it's hard to get a fix on what's happening nationally. But that's what Sean Cavanagh tries to do. He covers state education policy for Education Week, and joins us now. Hi.

Mr. SEAN CAVANAGH (Reporter, Education Week): Hi, good to be here.

SIEGEL: And first, do you have any sense of how many teachers could be laid off in the coming school year?

Mr. CAVANAGH: Well, there's no real way of knowing. And the estimates, as you mentioned, do vary considerably from state to state. The estimates of total layoffs for school employees were up around 60,000; but some of those have been pared back a bit as state revenues have picked up a bit and things have looked a bit more optimistic. But there will be layoffs and they will be significant in many, if not most, states.

SIEGEL: And when you write about layoffs in one city or state or another, do you see recurring patterns of who's getting laid off, what kind of teachers or what point in their careers that they're at? Or does it vary a great deal?

Mr. CAVANAGH: I think it varies a great deal. By and large, schools fight very hard, districts fight very hard to preserve the jobs of teachers in core subjects - math, language arts, history, social studies, foreign languages -partly because in many cases those subjects are the ones being tested on statewide tests. And also because, quite frankly, those are the subjects that parents care most about. And so what you tend to see is cuts to the arts, elective courses and so on.

For a long time, teachers who had more seniority were most likely to be protected, although many states right now are moving away from that.

SIEGEL: Short of layoffs, I assume school districts are also cutting a great deal. Typical ways of cutting spending?

Mr. CAVANAGH: A lot of cuts to extra curricular programs. We see cuts to professional development, you know, the training that teachers get every summer - a lot of that is going away or at least being put on hold. Districts are avoiding making repairs to buildings, putting off maintenance; they're putting off the purchase of textbooks and technology. Any expense that can be conceivably pushed down the road without upsetting parents, school board members, others in the community, are likely to be put on hold for quite some time.

SIEGEL: Well, what effect does this latest way of layoffs have on the relationship between school districts and teacher unions?

Mr. CAVANAGH: I think that this has been a very difficult time, a very strained time in terms of the relationship between state legislatures, state school boards and teachers unions. Teachers unions are fighting to protect, quite frankly, the jobs of their members. State legislatures in a lot of states are trying to cut expenses in many of the ways that directly affect teachers; benefits, cuts to health care, cuts to pensions, and changes in collective bargaining which states argue will bring down the cost of districts.

SIEGEL: It sounds like a tough job market for teachers right now.

Mr. CAVANAGH: Oh, no doubt. There's a lot of uncertainty about not only what's ahead for the fall, but realistically, state budgets aren't likely to rebound for another two to four years at least, and perhaps even longer.

SIEGEL: Well, Sean Cavanagh, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. CAVANAGH: Well, thank you.

SIEGEL: Sean Cavanagh, who covers state education policy for Education Week.

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