Teachers group mirrors city recommendations for layoff reforms

A teacher advocacy group supported by prominent opponents of the law requiring seniority-based teacher layoffs has unveiled one of the first detailed proposed alternatives to that law.

A task force of 11 members of Educators 4 Excellence, the group of teachers critical of many union work rules, presented their recommendations to Mayor Michael Bloomberg earlier this month. The group is financially backed by the Gates Foundation and is linked to the advocacy group Education Reform Now.

Much of their proposal is composed of recommendations that are already being pushed by Bloomberg and Chancellor Cathie Black. In speeches and editorials, the Bloomberg administration has strongly advocated scrapping seniority-based layoffs. Instead they propose laying off teachers whose principals have rated them as unsatisfactory or who currently lack full-time teaching positions in schools.

E4E’s proposal goes one step further, arguing that teachers who have racked up high numbers of unexcused absences during the school year should also be among the first to lose their jobs. Under the plan, teachers who were absent more than 22 days last school year and this one without a doctor’s note would be laid off first.

Still, the city could be forced to lay off far more teachers than who might be covered in E4E’s proposal. The most conservative recent estimates indicate that the city may be forced to lay off more than 6,000 teachers if severe state budget cuts go through.

Last year, principals gave 1,813 teachers unsatisfactory ratings, and city officials estimated today that roughly 1,200 teachers are currently in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool, which teachers enter when they lose full-time teaching positions at their school because of budget cuts. Those teachers remain on the city’s payroll and many continue to work in schools working as substitute teachers or doing administrative tasks.

Data on how many teachers have accrued high numbers of unexcused absences is murky. Last school year, 7.1 percent of the city’s roughly 80,000 teachers took more than 16 absences, though city officials cautioned that those numbers include teachers who had doctors’ notes and could also include teachers who took all of their remaining sick days before going on leave. Overall, teachers provided doctors’ notes for about a third of all absences.

Under the E4E proposal, if city officials are forced to lay off more teachers than those covered in their core recommendations, layoffs should be spread evenly across city schools. For example, the city might determine that each school would have to lay off 5 percent of its staff. Principals would decide which teachers should be laid off, though they would be required to provide documentation defending their choice.

The amount of discretion that the plan gives to principals — who currently also have the sole responsibility of assigning “unsatisfactory” ratings — could raise concerns among those who worry that principals already have too much unchecked power over teachers’ careers. Last month, the city allowed a Bronx principal to keep her job after an investigation concluded that she instructed her aides to give teachers unsatisfactory ratings without ever observing their teaching.

A union spokesman also said that the city already has the authority to remove teachers who have racked up extremely high numbers of absences and should not rely on layoffs to do so.

In the face of the city’s ramped-up campaign against seniority layoff rules, teachers union chief Michael Mulgrew has frequently responded that the city should be able to make cuts to administrative and contractual expenses rather than lay off teachers.

Though the proposal relies heavily on principal’s determinations — and do not include data based on student achievement — E4E co-founder Sydney Morris today characterized E4E’s proposals as being based on objective criteria. She argued that following the group’s proposals would cause far less instability to the school system than seniority-based layoffs would. Critics of the current layoff rules worry that seniority-based dismissals would hurt schools in high-needs areas with high teacher turnover and thus greater numbers of new teachers far more than it would richer schools.

“We recognize that our proposed system is not perfect and that ideally we need a very comprehensive teacher evaluation system before we can truly evaluate who is an effective teacher,” Morris said. “However, our formula is far less likely to negatively affect students than the current system.”

The roll-out of E4E’s plan today follows the introduction on Friday of a television ad attacking seniority-based layoffs from the well-funded advocacy group Education Reform Now, which is chaired by former Chancellor Joel Klein. E4E and ERN are affiliated (ERN paid for E4E’s website development, and an E4E board member appears in ERN’s most recent television ad opposing last-in, first-out). Both are represented by the same public relations group, SKDKnickerbocker, which was founded by Micah Lasher, who went on to become Bloomberg’s chief lobbyist in Albany.

A spokeswoman for the mayor did not return a call inquiring if Bloomberg would soon release his own more detailed proposal of alternatives to the current layoff rules.