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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Many big-city school systems are struggling to close huge budget shortfalls, and that means they're facing wrenching decisions about closing schools, dismissing teachers, and cutting back student programs. Today, we bring you stories from two of those cities.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We begin in Providence, Rhode Island, where teachers gathered yesterday in front of City Hall to protest the dismissal of the city's entire teaching force. Many of those teachers will ultimately be rehired, but the move shows the extreme steps that some districts are taking.

Elisabeth Harrison, from member station WRNI, reports.

Chanting Protesters: Teachers united will never be defeated. Teachers...

ELISABETH HARRISON: About 1,500 people jammed the street in front of Providence City Hall, raising signs and banging drums in protest. The rally got some added star power from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who calls the terminations insane.

Ms. RANDI WEINGARTEN (President, American Federation of Teachers): I thought the only insanity was in Wisconsin, not in Rhode Island.

HARRISON: Providence city officials say this is not Wisconsin, but the city is facing an estimated deficit of more than $100 million for the next fiscal year, or roughly 20 percent of the city budget.

Mayor ANGEL TAVERAS (Providence, Rhode Island): It's unprecedented.

HARRISON: Providence's new mayor, Angel Taveras, says he is considering school closures and layoffs for many city workers. But teachers are feeling the pain first because of a state law that requires districts to notify teachers by March 1st if their jobs are in jeopardy. He says he chose terminations instead of layoffs because it ensures that teachers the city can't afford will be completely removed from the city payroll.

Mayor TAVERAS: With a layoff, for various reasons, you can be responsible for paying teachers who are not teaching in a classroom. In addition to that, if they go into the substitute pool, you're paying them full pay and benefits, and that's costing an enormous amount of money. I can't allow the taxpayers to be on the hook for paying teachers who are not teaching.

HARRISON: But union leaders point out that the dismissal of 2,000 educators means the city can ignore seniority rights as it re-staffs classrooms. Here's Providence Teachers Union president Steve Smith.

Mr. STEVE SMITH (President, Providence Teachers Union): By firing all the teachers, the mayor's not solving an educational or a fiscal problem. He is making a political decision to take control and silence workers.

HARRISON: Those workers serve more than 23,000 students in what is by far Rhode Island's largest school district. Eighty percent of Providence students are Hispanic and black, and many come from low-income families. Like urban districts around the country, Providence struggles with some of the lowest test scores in the state.

Mr. EMMANUEL RIVAS: Firing the teachers is not going to help, and it's not going to get any better.

HARRISON: As he drops his nephew off at school, Emmanuel Rivas worries that this latest controversy will only make things worse.

Mr. RIVAS: Myself, I got five nephews that are currently staying with me, and I got three that live with me. So what's going to end up happening with them? I mean, are they fired for good, are they going to go on strike? Beats me, man.

HARRISON: Yet parent Christie Chase sees room for optimism. She says this is an opportunity to end the longstanding practice of giving staffing priority to teachers who have been on the job longer.

Ms. CHRISTIE CHASE (Parent): This is an unfortunate way to get there, but something drastic does need to be done, and I think this will force the issue of how you evaluate and hire teachers.

HARRISON: Providence city officials say their goal is to cut the budget while doing the best they can for city schoolchildren. And they say they will start rescinding some teacher terminations as early as this month. Teachers union leaders say the dismissals are illegal, and they're ready to take this battle all the way to the State Supreme Court.

For NPR News, I'm Elisabeth Harrison in Providence.

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