The newest teachers are typically the ones who are first to go during layoffs. That’s because traditional seniority-based protections require it.
Thanks to recent efforts to diversify the teaching force, a relatively high percentage of rookie educators are people of color – meaning these “last in, first out” (LIFO) practices could derail some of that work.
A report shared exclusively with USA TODAY breaks down by state how teachers of color are far more likely to be the target of such layoffs than white teachers because they are only in their first or second year of teaching. Nationally, teachers of color are nearly 50% as likely to be in their first two years on the job.
Despite headlines about a national teacher shortage, many schools have or will have a surplus of teachers and face layoffs with a recession on the horizon and the end of an infusion of pandemic-era cash.
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Most teachers are white; new teachers more likely to be BIPOC
Roughly 80% of teachers are white, compared with less than half of public school students.
Consider, however, that educators of color made up only slightly more than 10% of the workforce in the late 1980s. Much has been done in between to diversify the teaching force.
Overall, the LIFO report’s authors calculated that states and districts have invested nearly $100 million in teacher diversity since 2010. According to a report by the Education Trust, more than half of states have “grow your own” programs geared at recruiting and training prospective educators who are from the communities they serve.
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In some states – including Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Minnesota – educators of color are more than twice as likely as white peers to be in their first two years of teaching.
“We want to make sure that we don’t undo all of the progress that we’ve done,” said Priscila Sousa, a state representative in Massachusetts who co-introduced a bill that would preserve many of the educators hired through relief funds. “We want to make sure that going forward, as districts make decisions and – God forbid they have to – about who lay off, they’re looking at other things beyond seniority.”
Why this matters for students
A growing body of research shows the powerful impact a teacher of color can have on a student, particularly one who isn’t white.
“Teacher diversity is super important for student learning, particularly for students of color,” said Evan Stone, a former New York City teacher who co-founded Educators for Excellence, the education advocacy organization that spearheaded the LIFO report along with TNTP, another teacher-focused group. It leads to “better lifetime outcomes, better graduation rates, a greater likelihood of being put into advanced courses and (a reduced likelihood) of being suspended.”
Arthur Everett is a veteran social studies educator in New York City who entered the teaching profession relatively late in life through an alternative certification program. He got into teaching, he said, because he always enjoyed learning and being around kids; he was raised in a family of educators, too.
But he was mostly inspired by his own experiences growing up as a Black boy in New York City schools, when he rarely had teachers who looked like him. Sometimes veteran teachers are not prepared to teach the student population in front of them, he said, who in many cases gravitate more toward the novice educators who reflect their own experiences.
Teachers of color can often “speak to students in a way that’s authentic to their own experiences,” said Everett, pointing to the high rate of teachers of color who quit or are pushed out in their first few years on the job. Yet “that population is not being sustained.”
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How can there be layoffs during a ‘teacher shortage’?
Contrary to much of the coverage on the issue, there is no national teacher shortage. Some regions, positions and disciplines suffer significant and persistent vacancies, including rural and high-poverty schools and special education, math and science.
Schools are also hiring for more positions than in the past partly to help with pandemic recovery, yet student enrollment in some places has plummeted. Student-to-teacher ratios have fallen as a result, according to the report, driven primarily by dwindling numbers of students. That’s especially evident in large, urban districts, which tend to serve especially large percentages of low-income students of color.
If Boston, for example, were to return to its pre-pandemic teacher-student ratio, it would lose 14% of its educators of color. “That’s a really scary factor for a city that has been working hard to diversify their workforce,” Stone said.
Boston is also subject to a 1974 school desegregation order requiring its teaching force to become 25% Black. Over the nearly half century since, the city has never quite met that goal.
“We actually have more of a student shortage than we have a teacher shortage in many places,” said Chiara Grabill, a former teacher and lawyer who now serves as the chief growth officer for Educators for Excellence.
Fewer students means less funding. But observers also have warned of imminent layoffs amid a looming recession and the expiration of pandemic-era relief dollars.
The federal government invested nearly $200 billion in K-12 schools in the first two years of COVID-19 but the funds are slated to expire in 2024. Districts that used some of their relief money on new teaching positions may resort to layoffs.
Last time there was a recession, in the years following 2008, the country’s K-12 education system lost 350,000 jobs. That included more than 120,000 teachers, many of them novice educators working in high-needs schools and serving large percentages of low-income students of color.
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Here’s how your state handles teacher layoffs
Thirteen states make seniority the only factor determining which teachers are on the chopping block.
Nineteen states leave layoff policies up to districts, and many stipulate that seniority factor exclusively into firing decisions.
Fighting back against LIFO
Another 19 states ban districts from relying on seniority as the sole or primary factor in layoff decisions.
In some cases, unions – historically among the biggest proponents of LIFO – have led the charge to dismantle such practices.
Among the most high-profile examples: the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, whose bargaining agreement with the district, finalized about a year ago, includes an unprecedented clause that essentially exempts novice teachers of color from LIFO practices. The policy has since faced lawsuits.
Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, seemingly endorsed the Minneapolis union’s reforms, tweeting this quote from its president: “The same people who want to take down teachers unions and blame seniority are now defending it for white people. This is all made up by the right wing now.”
More:This teachers union brought affirmative action into its layoff practices. Will more follow?
Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.
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