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Seniority-driven layoff rules are bad for teacher diversity

This Article is taken from Common Wealth Magazine.

Written by Representative Rita A. Mendes

THE RECENT NEWS that the Brockton public school system faces a more than $14 million shortfall in its budget just days before the school year started sent shock waves across a community that has already seen layoffs of 130 teachers as it braces for more. Communities of color have already seen teachers who shared the cultures, languages, and life experiences with their students be the hardest hit. The question now is whether we can change the “last in, first out” policy in our schools to preserve some of our most recently hired—and often most effective—teachers.

For me, this issue is deeply personal. After moving from home to home with relatives in Brazil from the age of four, I came to the United States at age 12. As my mother cleaned homes during the day and bussed tables at night, I was in school. I was the only child in my class who wasn’t white and didn’t speak English, and had to repeat a grade. Despite these challenges, by high school I had become a straight-A student, even as I worked a job at Dunkin’ Donuts until midnight some evenings.

Then I learned my mother was moving back to Brazil.

The only person I could rely on was my guidance counselor. An immigrant like me, who was also my Spanish teacher, she refused to let me give up, helped me find housing and pushed me to keep my job and stay in school. Even today, I don’t know how I did it all. But because of her influence and counsel, at 16 years old I was able to live on my own and eventually graduate not only from high school, but college and law school, going on to become an immigration attorney.

Teachers with diverse backgrounds and cultures have the power to change, and even save, lives. That is why it was so important when cities like Brockton provided emergency licenses to hundreds of teachers during the pandemic, giving many persons of color their first foot in the door to our schools.

I’ve seen the impact a familiar face can make. When I was first elected to the Massachusetts House last year, I started doing tours of public schools in Brockton to better understand our school system. Principals thought I was there for a closed-door meeting, but really, I wanted to see our classrooms and our Brazilian, Haitian, Cape Verdean, and Latino students.

When I shared my story, students’ eyes lit up. They couldn’t believe that standing here was someone just like them, with a mother who still speaks broken English. Someone who they could relate to and maybe even look up to. Someone who understood them.

Unfortunately, I worry we are taking that all away from these students – laying teachers off not because of their qualifications but in spite of them. Why? Because Massachusetts is one of only 13 states that requires the use of seniority as a key factor when making layoff decisions.

That’s why I’m supporting legislation, H. 583/S.340: An Act So All Students Thrive, which would give districts an array of factors to consider when determining who gets laid off in the event such actions. If we don’t act now, it won’t just be today’s students who suffer, but countless children who still haven’t even started school. That’s because it will be harder to attract teachers of color. What teacher would come to a school district with no job security – having taken on debts and gotten licensed only to be laid off?

This is a hard time for Brockton schools. Let’s not compound our problems. Let’s make teacher diversity a priority – for our schools and for the children they teach.

Rita Mendes is an at-large Brockton city councilor and a first-term Democratic state representative.

Rita Mendes is an at-large Brockton city councilor and a first-term Democratic state representative.

Demand Massachusetts maintain a high-quality, diverse teaching workforce!