As an educator in the Charleston County School District, I can appreciate the South Carolina Education Association looking out for its members, but I'm confused as to why the association doesn't support a proposed law that would protect great teachers.
Jackie Hicks, president of the SCEA, recently stated in an opinion piece that the association's mission is to "advocate for the issues of teachers and employees of South Carolina schools," and "lobby against legislation that runs counter to their interests."
Yet in the same piece, Ms. Hicks declared her opposition to a bill that would keep great teachers in the classroom and likely reduce the number of teachers laid off when budgets are cut or student enrollment drops. She implicitly supports keeping a system that puts quality teachers at risk.
The way things stand now, when schools have to make layoff decisions, each district is free to make teacher seniority the primary factor in determining who stays and who goes. For those districts that have adopted this seniority-based strategy into their policy, the last teacher hired is the first one fired, regardless of his or her effectiveness in the classroom.
What's more, the National Council on Teacher Quality and others have issued reports showing seniority-based layoffs lead to more jobs lost. The NCTQ ultimately found that "newer teachers cost less than more senior ones, which means that districts have to lay off a larger number of newer teachers to fill budget holes."
Now don't misunderstand, I think it would be equally wrong to let teachers go based on salary, but the point is, if school districts considered teacher quality as the top priority, studies suggest there would be fewer layoffs, fewer disrupted classrooms and more teachers keeping their jobs.
"Last-in, first-out" obviously makes no sense if our top priority is helping students learn. But even if you're putting teachers' interests first, as is the SCEA, getting rid of a seniority-based layoff system should be a no brainer: It elevates the teaching profession by keeping the best teachers in our schools.
Rather than encouraging creativity, passion and hard work, seniority-based layoffs send a message that all you have to do is hang on longer than the others. It increases risk and removes rewards for great teachers.
Sen. Paul Thurmond's proposed legislation, Senate Bill 1144, would fix this outdated policy by requiring school districts to make teacher quality the top consideration when circumstances force layoffs at schools.
Hicks and the SCEA leadership are clinging to a flawed concept which assumes that just because a teacher's been in the district longer, he or she is better than a teacher who's been there a year or two less.
The fact is, there's a lot more that factors into teacher quality than simply time served. Some teachers are more passionate than others. Some have a talent for inspiring kids to want to learn more. Others work extra hard to come up with creative ways to break through to their students, or just have a knack for helping their students achieve. The bottom line is that a list of the most senior teachers is not necessarily a list of the most effective teachers. And the most effective teachers, regardless of seniority, elevate the quality of teaching in our schools.
Budget cuts and teacher layoffs are never easy, but as a relatively new teacher, I'd like to think a decision to let me go would take into account more than just my start date. I'd like to believe we live in a state that values results and the teachers who help their students achieve them.
While there are solid reasons for teachers to support Sen. Thurmond's bill, the biggest reason for all of us to support it comes down to the kids. The entire reason we have an education system in the first place is to help South Carolina students learn and develop. We want to give them the most tools possible so they can forge a happy and successful life.
To do that we need to lose seniority-based layoff policies and keep every great teacher we can in South Carolina schools.
Chastity White is a master reading teacher in Charleston County School District and previously taught 3rd grade for five years. She has spent four summers teaching in Ghana and West Africa, and is a member of StudentsFirst South Carolina.