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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.

School districts around the country are planning massive layoffs as they struggle to close big budget deficits. And when it comes to choosing which teachers must go, many districts can use only one factor to guide them: seniority.

And as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, that means many schools will have to cast out effective teachers.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Like many of his counterparts, Cleveland Schools CEO Eugene Sanders is facing a monstrous spending gap, $54 million wide. According to Sanders, there's no room left to trim and he may have to shed over 500 teachers. He says that when he sent out pink slips earlier this year he had no flexibility.

Dr. EUGENE SANDERS (CEO, Cleveland School): The last hired are the first ones to go, without regard to productivity, efficiency, accountability, performance or outcomes.

ABRAMSON: That means some schools face a complete staff turnover.

(Soundbite of children)

ABRAMSON: MC2 STEM High School, with its freshman campus located at the Great Lakes Science Center, is only two years old. It has attracted lots of teachers new to the Cleveland school district.

Ms. CHRISTA KROHN (Teacher): This is my first year in the district and because of layoffs, my last.

ABRAMSON: Christa Krohn is one of those perky, vivacious teachers every parent wants for their child. She's actually been teaching math for eight years total, but her service in other districts does not count here. The RIF is all the more painful because she and other promising teachers were specially recruited to work in an innovative science-focused school, Cleveland's best hope to improve student performance.

Ms. KROHN: When you recruit someone and then you pink slip them, it's just not right. You just don't do that to people.

The principal of this school, Jeff McClellan, laboriously hammered out a special memorandum of understanding with the Cleveland Teachers Union so that he could he interview and hire the staff he wanted. Teachers agreed to work all summer in this year-round school but McClellan couldnt touch seniority because it is written into state law. Now, all but two of his 12 teachers will be canned.

Mr. JEFF MCCLELLAN (Principal): The unfortunate thing is we've invested, you know, on average about 430 to 440 hours of professional development around our model. You know, even people who are interested that come in aren't going to necessarily have had that kind of training upfront.

ABRAMSON: Ohio is one of 15 states where, by law, seniority rules the day when layoffs are necessary, and many local contracts help perpetuate the decades old love affair with seniority. Why give absolute preference to teachers who have simply stayed in one district for longer?

David Quolke, president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, says experience should be valued.

Mr. DAVID QUOLKE (President, Cleveland Teachers Union): There's the notion that somehow experience is a bad thing. It's one of the few professions we kind of talk about it as being a bad thing.

ABRAMSON: Many states are starting to revamp their systems for evaluating teachers, so that student progress will play a bigger role. But those changes won't affect seniority-based layoffs, which don't take evaluations into account.

And David Quolke says there is a good reason to stick with seniority. Without an objective criterion for judging teachers, he says the game would be totally rigged in favor of younger, less expensive teachers.

Mr. QUOLKE: That an individual administrator, district, certainly when you're facing tough economic times, are going to say, you know, by the way Quolke, you know, your salary is $20,000 more and I think the $20,000-less teacher is better quality.

ABRAMSON: That's largely the position of the national teachers unions. With teacher layoffs unavoidable in countless districts, the seniority question will be front and center in the coming weeks, as final budget totals determine how many people must go. Some research indicates the primacy of seniority is making this whole process much more painful.

Marguerite Roza, of the University of Washington, says that when districts have to RIF younger, cheaper employees, they have to get rid of more teachers to balance their budgets.

Dr. MARGUERITE ROZA (College of Education, University of Washington): So you have to layoff more people in order to close a targeted gap than if you were to layoff neutral to salary.

ABRAMSON: Roza also says high-poverty schools feel the biggest impact from seniority-based layoffs because those schools tend to have the least experienced teachers.

A coalition of education groups is urging Congress to include an anti-seniority provision in a proposed federal program to save teachers' jobs.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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