Whether it’s in Bridgeport, Bristol, or Brooklyn, budget cuts and teacher layoffs are an unwelcome prospect but sometimes an unavoidable reality. The manner in which school districts choose which teachers to let go is often decided long in advance, during collective bargaining negotiations.
There are currently 61 school districts in Connecticut going through a collective bargaining process with their teachers, according to the State Department of Education.
Collective bargaining agreements are important drivers of school district policies and costs, which directly impact the working conditions for teachers and the environment in which kids learn.
Yet, very often, those agreements ignore issues of how well a teacher works with his or her students, and instead leave things to chance, to the flip of a coin or a random lottery.
This month, for the second year in a row, the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN) released its Teacher Contract Database, offering users the unprecedented ability to view all 175 collective bargaining agreements in Connecticut in a statewide context.
The data presents some interesting trends. For example, in the vast majority of school districts when it comes to teacher layoffs driven by budget cuts, how long a teacher has been on the job is the most important factor — if not the only factor — taken into consideration. In 163 districts, or 93 percent of all school districts with collective bargaining agreements in Connecticut, contracts require that seniority must be either the sole or primary factor deciding teacher layoffs.
Conversely, how well a teacher performs in his or her job is almost never considered as a factor when deciding layoffs. No Connecticut school districts use teacher evaluation results as the sole factor in layoffs, and only seven districts, 4 percent of the total, consider teacher evaluations of “primary” importance when deciding which teachers can continue teaching.
But when seniority isn’t enough — when two teachers were, for example, hired on the same day — many school districts in Connecticut are required to rely on chance, literally, to settle the tiebreaker.
It could come down to heads or tails. In West Haven, when seniority isn’t enough, the district flips a coin to decide which teachers stay and which go. In Hartford, layoff decisions between teachers with the same level of seniority are made based on the last four digits of a teacher’s randomly assigned Social Security Number. In Bristol, there are multiple provisions for tiebreakers, including the date stamped on the most recent employment application. Both Stratford and Waterbury have a “drawing by lot” to decide tiebreakers, as does Enfield.
Other school districts decide tiebreakers based on non-school decisions, like years of service in the military or Peace Corps, as they do in Milford, or participation in extracurricular activities, as they do in Wolcott.
The desire of a school district to be fair when deciding tiebreakers is understandable and admirable, but chance is not the only objective measurement. No teacher — indeed, no professional at any organization — wants their employment to come down to the flip of a coin. No parent would want the quality of their child’s education decided randomly.
A teacher’s ability to help his or her students grow and learn should be the main deciding factor in layoffs, not chance. Parents, advocates, education policymakers, and legislators must start looking at teacher contracts and the provisions they contain in context, and demand change for the better if we hope to realize the goal of providing a high quality education for every child, regardless of race, wealth, or zip code.
Jennifer Alexander is the CEO of ConnCAN (Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now).