Mayor and Unions Clash Over Teacher Layoff Plan

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Beth Fertig, WNYC's education reporter, discussed Mayor Bloomberg's release of the list of 4,500 teacher positions that would be eliminated if proposed cuts go into effect.

In his plan for teacher layoffs, Mayor Bloomberg has warned that some New York City schools could lose two thirds of their teachers under the "last hired, first fired" layoff rules -- and he's fighting the prospect with hard numbers. His list of 4,500 teacher positions showed what would be eliminated if the cuts go into effect.

The Mayor's plan has been perceived as an attack on unions in a time when the labor is on the forefront of the country's political landscape. (Bloomberg defended himself in an op-ed in the New York Times on Monday, saying he fundamentally supports collective bargaining.) Unions representing teachers and principals in the city call this plan a political stunt to help him end the "last in, first out" policy. But some schools in the city have more inexperienced teachers on staff than others, so if the proposed firings take place under this law, it could affect schools disproportionally.

WNYC's Beth Fertig detailed which schools and teachers could be affected.

The upper east side, for example, is a place that has some new schools and a lot of new young teachers and so that was going to take a hit as well as poor low income areas where there's, number one, high teacher turnover and, number two, a lot of new schools that have opened to replace some failing schools...on the other hand there's places where there's a lot of stability, like Staten Island where teachers tend to go and stay there for a very long period of time and so in Staten Island, only three percent of their teachers would be lost. That's the lowerst percent of any of the districts in the city.

Fertig said another reason you see disproportionate percentages is because the city has to target licensed areas where they think they can manage with fewer teachers.

For example, elementary education. That's a very broad licensed area where you're a classroom teacher. They can do with 2,500 fewer, is the projection, but that's nine percent of all active teachers who are in elementary schools, compared to if you look at music, arts, they're only losing a few hundred teachers, but that's about fifteen percent of all music and art teachers.

There is yet another wrinkle in the number of layoffs based on what teachers are teaching - "new" doesn't always mean the same thing.

They go in different categories of newness, for example. Among the elementary teachers that I mentioned, when the city targeted 2,500 teachers for layoffs because they're the least experienced, they went with teachers who have four years or less. With accounting, which is taught in some of the career classes, they decided they could do with fifty percent fewer of those teachers so they went with anyone with less than fourteen years experience...

Fertig went on to clarify that this plan is not exactly a clear case of firing teachers, either.

If we say that a school would lose 70 percent of its teachers...or 50 percent or 30 percent -- it doesn't necessarily mean they would lose all of those positions. It means that if the principal has the budget and says I want these positions in my school, they could use more senior teachers who are in the 'pool' of teachers that they city pays for, who are without permanent positions... and use teachers who have been let go from other schools -- which is very likely to happen this year with the cuts. [They could say] I'm going to take this more senior elementry  school teacher to fill the position by my first year teacher who has to leave, so it doesn't exactly translate into the cuts we think of when we think of teacher losses.

In the planned layoffs, the city has spared special education, ESL and speech pathology teachers.

Some see all of this as a veiled attempt to win something back from the unions — the right to lay off teachers by merit and not by seniority — but Fertig argued the Mayor's been fairly clear about his intentions.

It's definitely a bargaining chip, you can see that politically...He admitted that he wants people to see this. He was asked, are you trying to scare people, and he said, I'm giving them the facts. If you see how this is going to affect the schools, you should call and tell your lawmakers to get rid of last in, first out, or LIFO. So there's defnintely a lot of political pressure building on this.

On Tuesday morning the State Senate's education committee voted to pass the repeal of LIFO, but this is only a start, Fertig said. In the meantime, it seems the unions and the Mayor will continue to battle over this plan.

Whether the firing and the repeal of the law will happen or not, a new system for rating teachers goes into effect next year. Unions argue this is the very reason why there's no need to get rid of LIFO. The Mayor counters that there's a budget crisis in the city, and there's no time to wait.