Matt Miller - The Archives
Buyouts, not bailouts, for teachers
The Washington Post, May 13, 2010

The imminent layoff of as many as 275,000 of the nation's roughly 3 million public school teachers has called forth the usual responses. Democrats, led by Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. George Miller, want to spend $23 billion to bail out recession-ravaged state budgets and keep teachers on the job, but the rest of Washington has little appetite for stimulus-as-usual given the surging federal debt. Republicans say it's time states got their spending under control without Uncle Sam's help—a fine-sounding idea until you realize that many schools in poor neighborhoods will see up to a third of their teachers dismissed, making Republican "tough love" look indistinguishable from child abuse.

Luckily, there's a third way that can rejuvenate America's teacher corps while charting a path toward fiscal sanity. The answer is to think "buyout," not "bailout."

This takes a little explaining. The coming teacher firings are doubly disastrous because labor contracts and state laws require that most layoffs be done on the basis of seniority—that is, newer teachers get the ax first. The trouble with this "last-in, first-out" rule is that layoffs are made with no concern for whether the teachers in question are any good. Yet in many big districts, huge efforts have been made in recent years to hire talented young teachers via programs such as Teach for America and the New Teacher Project to work with the nation's neediest children. With one awful stroke, these layoffs could eviscerate years of such recruiting, giving poor kids the shaft once again.

This injustice is especially acute when, as great senior teachers in high-poverty schools have told me with passion, many of their long-serving colleagues are just going through the motions, hanging on until generous pensions click in. If it's really "all about the children," it's insane to fire younger teachers, no matter how effective they are, in order to protect more senior teachers, no matter how weak (and, incidentally, more costly) they may be.

The dilemma is compounded by the fact that teacher pensions represent a mammoth unfunded liability—at least $330 billion nationally, according to a recent Manhattan Institute study, and perhaps as much as $900 billion if calculated conservatively. The longer that ineffective senior teachers hang on, the higher these pensions soar, because they're typically based on a teacher's highest annual incomes near the end of a career.

What to do? The federal government should turn calamity into opportunity by putting a Harkin-sized pot of money on the table that districts can tap to offer buyouts to senior teachers. This is what a business would do to refresh its workforce and begin to pay down outsized pension obligations. A 20-year veteran can cost twice as much in salary as a newer teacher—and three or four times as much once retirement benefits and pensions are factored in. If a district can offer, say, a year's pay as an incentive for an ineffective senior teacher to retire early, it can bring in (or save) several younger ones and come out ahead fast.

Democrats should love the idea because it ensures that children in poor classrooms end up with better teachers. Republicans should love buyouts because they mean a farewell to senior teachers who are often staunch union loyalists and reactionaries, making room for younger talent interested in professionalizing teaching, rethinking archaic protections such as tenure, and bringing a culture of achievement to the classroom.

Union leaders like Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers should embrace buyouts, too, because they're a way to do what's right for kids while getting ahead of the brewing backlash against union recalcitrance. As Weingarten should realize, when unions are cast as villains even by liberal filmmaker Davis Guggenheim in his powerful new schools documentary, "Waiting for Superman" (due out in October), we're reaching a tipping point.

The real question is where to find the cash. A good start, says Lenny Mendonca of San Francisco's Bay Area Council, who first suggested the buyout idea to me, would be those billions in unused funds from the Troubled Assets Relief Program. There's a certain logic in using money meant to get "troubled assets" off the books to get deadwood teachers out of the classroom.

If Weingarten wants to stake her claim to the kind of visionary leadership her AFT predecessors Sandy Feldman and Albert Shanker exemplified, she'd put buyouts, not bailouts, at the center of the debate. If she won't, we'll need a leader respected by all sides to champion and broker this breakthrough. Over to you, Arne Duncan.