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Bill would make big change in WA teachers layoffs

The sponsor of a bill that would make teacher effectiveness the main determining factor during layoffs says the proposal is worth billions of dollars in school improvement. But the president of the state's largest teachers union wonders why lawmakers are spending time on the proposal when they should be focusing on how to avoid teacher layoffs in the first place.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The sponsor of a bill that would make teacher effectiveness the main determining factor during layoffs says the proposal is worth billions of dollars in school improvement. But the president of the state's largest teachers union wonders why lawmakers are spending time on the proposal when they should be focusing on how to avoid teacher layoffs in the first place.

Mary Lindquist of the Washington Education Association said lawmakers started last year to move toward a new teacher evaluation system. About 17 school districts are researching, developing and testing model systems, some of which may be scaled up to be used across the state. This new approach likely will change the way school districts lay off teachers, but Lindquist said school administrators and teachers need time to develop the new system.

"We're going into new territory. We need to take it slowly and make sure we're approaching it rationally and calmly and not in the midst of a heated and very divisive debate," Lindquist said on Friday.

Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and sponsor of the teacher layoff bill, disagrees.

"There's nothing out there that I could do this year that makes a multi-billion dollar difference in education other than this legislation," he said. "To leave billions of dollars on the table because we like the status quo is unacceptable."

Tom said any other initiative aimed at improving student learning as much as one that ensures the best teachers remain in the classroom would cost the state billions of dollars. In other words, if his proposal is ignored and the system remains unchanged, a big potential savings would be lost, he argues.

Tom's bill, Senate Bill 5399, would require school districts facing layoffs to first lay off teachers who received the lowest average evaluation ratings during their two most recent evaluations, based on a formula that gives a weight of 60 percent to the most recent evaluation and 40 percent to the previous one.

Most of the state's current teacher contracts — agreements between teachers and their individual school districts — make seniority the first or one of the most important considerations for teacher layoffs. Tom wants to change that system across the state and make seniority the tie-breaker when two or more teachers have the same average evaluation score.

The bill also proposes school districts give teachers with high evaluation scores, who for some reason haven't been placed in a job with the district, first dibs on new jobs.

The bill would require all future teacher collective bargaining agreements to adhere to this policy, if it becomes a law.

Tom said he got the idea for the proposal while talking to voters before the previous election. Parents told him they couldn't figure out why school districts were laying off good, young teachers. Tom's district includes parts of the Bellevue and Lake Washington school districts.

"The research is abundantly clear that the No. 1 factor in the classroom as far as student learning is making sure you have a quality teacher in the classroom," he said.

Tom said the state isn't efficiently using tax dollars when school districts are laying off some of their most effective teachers.

He cited some recent research from the University of Washington that found deciding layoffs based solely on which teachers have the least seniority has a significant impact on students' ability to learn.

The UW Center for Education Data and Research, which studies the relationships between education policies and student outcomes, looked at the 1,717 Washington state teachers who were given layoff notices in either of the past two school years.

Most of those teachers were given notices because they had the least seniority; nearly all of them ultimately kept their jobs, but many face layoffs next year as federal stimulus money used to retain them dries up.

Dan Goldhaber, lead author of the study and the center's director, projected that student achievement after seniority-based layoffs would drop by an estimated 2.5 to 3.5 months of learning per student, when compared to laying off the least effective teachers. The study relies on a measurement of effectiveness known as "value-added," in which teachers are judged by the improvement of their students on standardized tests.

Lindquist said Goldhaber's research is far from the last word on value-added as a measure of teacher effectiveness.

"It's a subject that needs a lot more study before we start turning things upside down," she said.