Newark may have to lay off top teachers, and the Democrats are to blame

Editorial by the Star-Leder Editorial Board

05/29/15

 Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson may soon be forced to lay off some of her best teachers, thanks to Democrats in the state legislature. 

Republicans, including Gov. Chris Christie, wanted to do the right thing back in 2012, and end the arbitrary practice known as "last in, first out," which protects absolute seniority rights during times of layoffs. 

But the state's largest teachers union insisted on keeping it, and many Democrats including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) bent to its will. 

So seniority stayed. Now, those legislators have left Anderson no choice but to purge some of her highest performing teachers, as the district downsizes to accommodate the growing number of kids switching to charter schools. 

We all know the most talented teachers aren't always the ones who have been on the job the longest. Yet this state statute protected by the union leaves administrators zero flexibility. The union isn't just selling out some of its best teachers, it's also leaving kids to suffer for it.

Teacher quality is especially meaningful for poor children, who start out substantially behind and need strong teachers to help catch them up. Layoff notices should be handed out based on what's best for children in crisis, not the union faithful. 

Especially in larger districts like Newark, which lose hundreds of students each year and therefore need fewer teachers, seniority is a major impediment to a school's ability to hang on to the best people. 

We see the repercussions every time a standout teacher gets a pink slip — like the "Teacher of the Year" for the Sacramento City Unified School District, or New Jersey's own Christina Passwater, an award-winning literacy teacher at Whittier Elementary School in Camden. 

When Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard faced the prospect of layoffs last year which ended up being much smaller than those predicted for Newark he was forced to look at specific positions, then apply strict state requirements on seniority. It was "incredibly frustrating" to see some of the most promising teachers affected, he said.

Anderson's hands are similarly tied. She requested a waiver from state Education Commissioner David Hespe, proposing that seniority be taken into consideration in layoffs, but only after first weighing a teacher's performance rating. He has been reluctant to grant it, because according to state law, seniority must be the sole factor in laying off tenured staff.

Time to ask the Democrats: Are you really proud of that? 

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