SHOULD TEACHERS HAVE SENIORITY RIGHTS?
Teachers' seniority rights are under attack across the country. Under the banner of education reform, teacher seniority protections have been lost or seriously weakened in Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Seattle, and are targeted in Los Angeles and Kansas City. In Boston, where the Boston Teachers Union and the Boston School Committee are negotiating a new contract as we go to press, the mayor has called for weakening seniority rights and a business-backed organization called The Boston Plan for Excellence has called for their elimination. A coalition of "community groups" and "parent organizations" calling themselves the "Voices for Children Coalition" is trying to intervene in the negotiations "on the side of the children"—against seniority rights.
How should parents react to this issue? Should we defend seniority rights for teachers? Or do these teachers' rights stand in the way of the best education for our children?
HIRING THE "BEST" TEACHERS
Voices for Children argues that seniority preferences in hiring must be eliminated so that "All schools should be able to hire the best person for the job." Common sense? Not really.
Who is "the best person for the job" for principals constantly pushed to cut costs? It's the youngest teacher, the teacher who is cheapest, least experienced, most compliant, most easily intimidated, least savvy, least experienced in unionism, least likely to speak out or fight back–or it's the principal's brother-in-law: some crony in need of a job, or the friend of some pol he owes a favor to.
This isn't just a problem of individual principals; it's how the system works. In important ways, corporate and government officials want the schools serving working class and poor children to fail, to justify their place in an unequal society. This is why they starve the schools for funds. This is why they keep classes large. This is why they make life in urban schools so difficult for teachers, while they deprive children in urban districts of books and supplies and sometimes even of desks. This is why they impose high stakes tests designed to push students out of school without a diploma.
What about the argument that principals need to be able to hire their own staff to make education reform work, especially that part of education reform that involves creating a special "team" unique to each school?
The real obstacle to better schools is not technical but political. The problem isn't that we don’t know how to make urban schools better. Teachers already know many ways to help our children learn more effectively. The problem is that teachers and parents don't have the resources, the political support, the power to make better schools happen. The "every school is unique" approach is another management scam, designed to put schools in competition with each other, break down collegial relationships across school districts, and prevent us from building a movement for fundamental educational change.
Eliminating seniority will worsen the climate of fear and demoralization that years of budget cuts and attacks on teachers have already created in our schools. It will put creativity and courage ever more at risk. Teachers fought for seniority protection in the first place because without it they were defenseless against School Committees and principals who wanted to eliminate more expensive, experienced teachers or to intimidate teachers who resisted favoritism and corruption.
Eliminating seniority rights is also designed to destroy the institutional memory of unionism in the schools. Younger teachers have no real experience of union organizing and struggle; by getting rid of experienced teachers, school officials aim to keep it that way.
Seniority rights are critical to protect our children. Which teachers are most likely to be let go in the current climate of corporate-backed education reform? Exactly those teachers our children need the most: experienced teachers capable of handling the challenge of teaching in under-funded, understaffed schools and who are most willing to speak out against such atrocities as high stakes testing and other abuses. Without seniority rights, schools will become the personal fiefdoms of principals beholden to corporate forces hostile to good education for all children.
THE MEANING OF SENIORITY
Seniority is a time-honored means of eliminating favoritism in the workplace. It goes much deeper than union contracts. Seniority represents a fundamental human value, the solidarity between generations, where older workers share their experience with the next generation and younger workers protect older workers as they begin to slow down.
Education of course is not the only area where seniority is under attack. Seniority and other worker protections have been under attack for the last 25 years throughout American industry, to be replaced by favoritism and fear. The only difference is that, in industry, the attack on seniority is justified in the name of efficiency and competitiveness, while in schools it's justified in the name of the children.
THE NEED FOR A UNITED MOVEMENT
Many parents have had experiences where they were unhappy with a particular teacher. But the great majority of teachers are talented people dedicated to the well-being of children. Often the same conditions that undermine our children's school performance are the things that discourage teachers as well. We must see that teachers in trouble get help, just as we must get help for students in trouble.
The schools are rigged to fail. School officials are only too happy to see parents and teachers at each other's throats, leaving us powerless to affect schools for the better. Teachers and parents share the goal of success for all children. We can only succeed if we stand united.
The forces arrayed against seniority in Boston are the same powers which have given our children an inferior education for so long: the mayor, the Boston School Committee, the leaders of big business. The Boston Globe is the biggest opponent of seniority for teachers and the biggest promoter of high stakes tests for students. These are the last people parents should support.
Beneath its pro-child rhetoric, "Voices for Children" is setting parents and teachers against each other at exactly the time when parent-teacher unity is most needed to stop high stakes testing and other corporate-backed reforms. A real parent movement would unite parents and teachers to defend our children.
This editorial originally appeared in New Democracy Newsletter, July-October 2000.