LYNN NEARY, host:
States across the country are struggling with huge budget deficits. And as education spending is cut, thousands of teachers are likely to get layoff notices. By tradition and by longstanding agreements with teachers' unions, the most recently hired teachers are usually the first to be let go.
But rules that favor senior teachers are under attack nationwide. This past week, the New York state Senate passed a bill that would end the use of seniority as the sole factor in deciding which teachers get laid off. The bill faces long odds in the state Assembly, still the vote is a sign of growing frustration with what's known as last in-first out.
NPR's Larry Abramson reports.
LARRY ABRAMSON: Like local leaders around the country, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York says he will soon have to lay off teachers because of shrinking state aid. Bloomberg says he cannot have his hands tied by a system that judges teachers solely on their years of experience.
Mr. MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (Mayor, New York City): We need a merit-based system for determining layoffs this spring, and anything short of that is just not a solution to the problem we face.
ABRAMSON: Education reformers have argued for some time that relying on seniority alone gives the ax to young, promising teachers. They also say the seniority system causes mayhem in low-income schools, which tend to rely on a lot of new teachers.
The anti-seniority forces got a boost from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan this past week, when he told reporters unequivocally:
Secretary ARNE DUNCAN (Department of Education): I mean, if layoffs are based only seniority that doesn't help kids, and it particularly doesn't help the students who need the most help.
ABRAMSON: Many Democratic education reformers see seniority as an obstacle to reforms that favor more effective teachers. At the same time, Republican governors in Wisconsin and other states are trying to reduce the power of labor in the name of fiscal austerity.
Unions, backed in a corner, say they are the only ones watching out for students. Michael Mulgrew, president of New York City's United Federation of Teachers, says budget cutters like Mayor Bloomberg are being disingenuous.
Mr. MICHAEL MULGREW (President, New York City United Federation of Teachers): We are very leery, especially in times like we have right now, that people will try to say just give us complete discretion and then they will stop investing in education.
ABRAMSON: Opponents of seniority rules may have some momentum, but they still face an uphill battle against a practice that is enshrined in law in 14 states. The Chicago Public Schools tried to get rid of hundreds of teachers last year without regard to seniority. And a judge said you can't do that.
Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union, says seniority is the law and ending it will just aggravate the already huge problem of teacher turnover.
Ms. KAREN LEWIS (President, Chicago Teachers Union): Fifty percent of the teachers that enter the Chicago public schools leave within the first five years. We have a problem that we're going to have instability throughout our system, and that's the direction we're going in. This is what seniority kind of puts the brakes on.
ABRAMSON: Politicians rushing to get rid of seniority would do well to consider what happens next.
Jeffrey Thomas of the Scottsdale Schools in Arizona says the state legislature there voted to get rid of seniority in 2009.
Mr. JEFFREY THOMAS (Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, Scottsdale Unified School District): What they didn't do is they didn't create an alternative.
ABRAMSON: Thomas says his district is working on a point-based system that looks at teacher evaluations and other factors. In some places, negotiations over a new evaluation system may take months or years, particularly if districts want to throw students' progress into the mix.
Jeffrey Thomas says districts that are already fighting their unions in court, or in the headlines, may never get those evaluations in place.
Mr. THOMAS: You don't vilify your union; you bring them to the table and you make them partners because when you talk to your union leadership, they don't want to see bad teachers either. But what they do want to see is they want to see you treat them fairly, if in fact you're going to go after performance issues.
ABRAMSON: Districts like New York City will not have time to develop a meaningful evaluation system before the budget ax falls. Mayor Bloomberg says he'll have to start making layoff decisions by the spring. That urgency may cause both sides to dig in their heels, which could leave seniority rules in place.
Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.