When it comes to N.J. teacher tenure, how do we move beyond LIFO?

As New Jersey’s tenure reform celebration subsides and the hard work of implementation begins, there’s an undercurrent of speculation regarding next steps on the political front.

This is commentary from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

As New Jersey’s tenure reform celebration subsides and the hard work of implementation begins, there’s an undercurrent of speculation regarding next steps on the political front. For many education reformers, the next target is finding a legislative solution that addresses the problem of seniority-based lay-offs, known as LIFO, or “first in, last out.”

In an earlier draft of 1455, Senator Teresa Ruiz’s tenure reform bill eliminated LIFO, but that section was deleted after full-throated opposition from lobbyists and aligned legislators. New Jersey School Boards Association Executive Director Marie Bilik expressed her disappointment:

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“During the legislative process, lawmakers removed a provision that would have ended the use of seniority, or ‘last in-first out,’ as the sole criterion when determining retention during staff reductions. School leaders need to consider a teacher’s job performance when recommending who would retain a position.  They don’t have the authority to do that now, and they still won’t have it under the current version of S-1455. NJSBA will continue to fight for elimination of ‘last in-first out.”

The history of LIFO

What’s the big deal anyway? Let’s look more closely at LIFO.

Many years ago, LIFO was nationally regarded as an essential element for teacher protection because teachers and other staff members could be fired at the whim of an autocratic administrator or a nepotistic school board member.

Age discrimination laws and other protections have rendered LIFO moot, but 11 states in the country retain the policy, including New Jersey.

According to education journalist Dana Goldstein, while people have used the term “last in, first out” for a while in reference to policies that protect older teachers at the expense of newer teachers, the first use of the acronym LIFO apparently was in an 2010 article by Stanford education economist Eric Hanushek.

She explains:

“I emailed Hanushek to ask him how he got the idea to apply ‘LIFO’ to education. ‘I just know [the term LIFO] from accounting — and my use just picked up on the standard accounting jargon, which seemed to characterize the [teacher seniority] rules perfectly,’ he wrote back. Now that teacher layoffs are a reality because of the recession, Hanushek wrote, people are paying more attention to the problem of good, young teachers losing their jobs because of seniority rules.”

An accounting term

So LIFO is an accounting term, referring to the way retailers, as Goldstein explains, “manage inventory by recording the sale of newer goods before older ones, thus conferring a tax advantage. The last time LIFO was frequently cited by national media was in early 2009, when the Obama administration and then-Democratic Congress attempted to prevent the oil and gas industry from using LIFO accounting as a tax-loophole.”

Some see “LIFO” as a pejorative term, equating professional educators with commodities — barrels of oil or cans of corn. But that’s the point: the policy of retaining educators based on years served effaces individual expertise. LIFO is impossible to justify educationally — teacher proficiency peaks after about two to five years (see this report from the Calder Institute, for example) — and this practice places (yet another) burden on poor urban districts, where teacher turnover is greatest. (See this article from Education Trust).

Just as with tenure reform, public opinion seems to be shifting towards more student-centric policies regarding retention of employment during lay-offs. A relatively new “non-union,” the Association of American Educators, surveyed its membership and found that 70 percent of teachers felt that “LIFO is obsolete and harms teachers and students alike.” A new report out from Fordham Institute, based on a survey of “randomly selected, nationally representative sample of adults 18 and older,” found that 74 percent of those surveyed believe “those with poor performance should be laid off first and those with excellent performance protected.”

Experience is important. Institutional knowledge is important. Many still regard LIFO as an essential piece of job protection. So how can we move beyond this impasse?

One option would be to pilot a program that offers higher salaries to teachers willing to sacrifice seniority rights during lay-offs, perhaps in chronically underperforming districts where teacher turnover is high. We’re still left with the distinctly unprofessional practice of basing job security on seniority but, like Senate Bill 1455, it might be a compromise that garners consensus and moves New Jersey towards a more child-centric school system.


Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJleftbehind.

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