by Julia Steiny
Last year on March 1, the town of Woonsocket, RI, laid off all its public school teachers, spreading considerable misery around town.
The year before that, also on March 1, Providence pink-slipped each of their nearly 2,000 teachers. And, as is usually the case with RI's winter layoffs, every single teacher was hired back again by fall.
The year before that, Central Falls got national attention by laying off its high school teachers on, you guessed it, March 1.
Are you seeing an ugly pattern here? Rhode Island law — Title 16, Section 13 — mandates that any teacher who might need to be let go, come September, must be notified by March 1. Districts must lay off anyone and everyone who might be affected by a worst-case budget scenario, or risk over-spending in the fall.
Rhode Island's state budget is due July 1, but delays are common. With the State's fiscal decisions in hand, cities and towns' can finally firm up their budgets. In February, schools have no clue what their September enrollment will be, what programs will change, how many teachers will retire, and so forth. Totally bass ackwards.
The annual ocean of pink slips induces a giant, statewide bummer for teachers, students and their families. For four more months of school, teachers soldier on, nurturing students in an atmosphere of impending doom.
Does this sound like a law that promotes academic health? Or achievement?
Supposedly, the March 1 law gives terminated teachers time to look for other jobs. In fact, the teacher job market only heats up much later, more like June.
The story in Woonsocket was that massive incompetence in the schools' finance office had put the town in fiscal shambles. Laying off the teachers didn't improve the immediate fiscal situation at all, but it had to be done.
In Providence, a big drop in student enrollment partly drove the mass layoffs. The new Mayor declared a "category five fiscal hurricane," which meant the City couldn't afford to run many partially-empty, inefficient schools. But which buildings needed the most repairs? Which consolidations made most sense? Such decisions take time. Again, every teacher returned eventually, but many were re-deployed to other schools.
Note the variety in these stories. It was the feds who designated Central Falls High School as among the 5 percent lowest-performing in the state. The feds demanded that districts with such schools choose one of four radical-change models. When the schools' union and administration could not agree on the specifics of a model, the March 1 deadline forced administration to maximize its flexibility with a mass layoff. Mind you, the feds caused dozens of schools across the nation to lay off and sometimes fire masses of teachers. So the only reason RI's nasty episode made national news was that it was the first such. Again, all teachers were re-hired, but March 1's pressure left totally unnecessary wounds.
In the state tied for the highest unemployment rate and only one of two states losing population, stories of struggle, such as those above, will likely continue.
Most states' deadlines, if they even have such a law, are set for late May or June — although California bums their teachers out on March 15th.
Massachusetts, the nation's educational darling according to their marvelous NAEP scores, has a June 15th date. June 15th leaves only a bit more than a week for being upset. MA kids get a full year of non-depressed instruction.
People wonder how Rhode Island can lavish so much money and effort on school reform, but have so little to show for it.
As he has every year since taking office, Senator Louis DiPalma (D) has submitted a bill (2013-S 0049) to move the hated date to June 1.
He says, "This is no small thing. It's hard for me to fathom why anyone would be against the bill. I have yet to hear a teacher say that the March 1 date is right. The consternation it causes! And for what reason? It doesn't need to happen."
Rep. Ruggerio (D) has a companion bill in the House (2013-H 5066).
There's still a month before March 1. No one supports the March 1 deadline. Legislators could get these bills to a vote asap. If there are objections, let them come forward and say what the objections are.
If not, give the state a huge gift of uninterrupted teaching and learning. Spare the school Human Resource Offices the expense of getting the pink slips out and the pain of fielding fretful phone calls. Avoid all the screamingly obvious damage done by this bad law.
Be heroes to kids, teachers and the state's emerging workforce.
Or risk more mass misery. As DiPalma put it, "God forbid there's another Woonsocket, and we (the Legislature) could have stopped it!"
It's a no-brainer.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.