New Jersey’s ‘Last-in, First-out? Policy Needs the Boot if the State Wants to Best Serve Students

Money does not buy happiness, and in the case of Camden, New Jersey, it certainly doesn’t buy academic success. The district has struggled for years despite per-pupil spending being among the highest in the nation, and facing recent budget cuts has been forced to lay off hundreds of teachers – but the oldest, not the best, are retained. If Camden’s goal is to help students achieve academically, teachers need to be valued for their merit, not their seniority.

The 1981 Abbott vs. Burke case included Camden students in the list of plaintiffs arguing that New Jersey’s school funding system was unconstitutional. The case resulted in the creation of Abbott school districts, which receive significant state financial support for being in a poor, urban area.

As an Abbott district Camden spends more than most districts in New Jersey (a state that is near the top in terms of per-pupil spending) at $25,575 per-pupil in 2012-13. Unfortunately, this has not translated into academic improvement for Camden students. In June 2013, in response to continued underperformance, the State Board of Education approved Governor Chris Christie’s plan to take control of Camden City Public Schools.

A month after the state takeover, Gov. Christie named Paymon Rouhanifard as the new superintendent of Camden schools. Rouhanifard faced a $75 million shortfall, and in April announced hundreds of layoffs in an effort to close some of the gap. The first to get the boot were not determined based on merit, but on seniority, as outlined by the state Board of Education.

As the Education Commission of the States reports, New Jersey requires that dismissals due to reduction in force must be done based on seniority. This type of provision, often referred to as “last-in-first-out,” does a tremendous disservice to students and to skilled teachers who happen to be low on the seniority ladder. It also contradicts efforts to enhance teacher effectiveness and recruit promising prospective teachers.

As layoff notices have gone out students and community members have responded. Some students walked out of class, joining parents and community members, and marched to the Board of Education offices in a protest.

“They’re getting rid of our teachers. Teachers that care for us,” said 11th grade student Jamal Dickerson.

“It’s not fair to them and it’s not fair to us,” said 9th grade student Naisha Rodriguez, referring to her favorite teacher being laid off.

Their protest shows that students care about who teaches them, and underlines the importance of eliminating seniority-based layoffs. When principals do not have the power to retain the best teachers students do not get the education they deserve.

Camden, a district with an 11:1 teacher-to-student ratio, is clearly not facing a class-size crisis. And, with spending above $25,000 per-student, insufficient funding is not the real problem. The recent protest over layoffs highlights the importance of keeping the best possible teachers.

Ending seniority-based layoffs is the best way to address student and parent concerns. When students hear that a great teacher won’t be coming back next year they should be angry. Teachers who work hard, and whom students and parents know do a great job in the classroom, need to be retained for Camden schools to improve.

When layoffs are seniority-based, there is less incentive for a teacher to devote time and energy to professional development. This does not assume that teachers are lazy or that they do not care about improving. Rather, it recognizes the fact that teachers face many demands on their time and must make decisions about how to divide their efforts. In any line of work, if professional development does not increase job security, there is clearly less motivation to do it.

Camden doesn’t need to spend more money. It already spends more per-pupil than most districts in the country. The students deserve – and their protest shows that they demand – that the school district retains the best teachers. New Jersey’s seniority based layoffs disincentivize professional development, remove teachers who deserve to stay in the classroom, and deny students the opportunity for the best possible education.