Enrollment grows and declines. Educational goals and programs evolve. Finances expand and tighten. During my career, I’ve experienced all of these trends. They underscore why public education must be a dynamic institution, which adapts to the needs of our students.
One factor has consistently thrown up a roadblock to educational progress. It remains in place despite recent groundbreaking efforts to reform the tenure process and how we evaluate educators’ job performance. That obstacle to improvement is LIFO, “last in, first out,” our state’s seniority system.
In the mid-1990s, an NJSBA White Paper, “The Challenge Ahead for New Jersey’s Public Schools: Funding Schools, Managing Schools,” characterized the seniority system as one that “elevates employee interests over educational considerations.” It makes years of service the controlling factor when determining whom a school district retains during a reduction in force. In the process, the system prohibits boards from using teaching performance as a factor in making such employment decisions.
It would be difficult to find a school leader who does not concur with this assessment. Thinking back to my own experience as a chief school administrator, I recall far too many instances when I had no choice but to lay off a dynamic, creative teacher in favor of a staff member whose only advantage was time in the position.
Just as tenure was in dire need of overhaul, LIFO is long overdue for elimination. On March 18, the NJSBA Board of Directors adopted new policy language that we hope will set the stage for a major campaign to eliminate LIFO as a factor in public school employment. The new policy provides clarity to the Association’s long-standing position on seniority:
The NJSBA believes that the seniority statute, regulations and case law thwart school management’s ability to operate efficiently and in the best interests of students; and that a school board should be able to rely upon criteria, such as a staff member’s teaching experience and job performance, when determining whom it will retain on staff after a reduction in force.
By itself, the revised policy language won’t bring about the end of LIFO; aggressive action in Trenton and at the grassroots level will. That’s why during the coming months, NJSBA will ask local school board members to actively convey the need for critical reform to our state’s leaders.
A few weeks ago, when writing about one of our state’s pending education reforms—the new educator evaluation process—I stated, “If we are truthful and sincere about our primary mission to improve student achievement, we must ensure that the people and the process of instruction are top grade.” Elimination of LIFO is the next logical step in fulfilling our commitment to student achievement.
These are my Reflections. I look forward to hearing yours. Contact me at [email protected]