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Teacher bailout, teacher reform?

In weighing another bailout for teachers, Congress has the opportunity to motivate states to change seniority rules that restrict flexibility in hiring and firing.

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President Obama is trying to save the Gulf Coast, and also jobs – particularly up to 300,000 jobs of teachers who could face layoffs due to tight state budgets.

The president wants Congress to help cash-strapped states fend off this layoff wave. But if Congress merely funnels more money to the states without asking for anything in return, it will have missed a huge opportunity to further education reform – in this case, fixing seniority rules that limit firing flexibility.

America has learned from the administration’s $4.3 billion “Race to the Top” contest that the lure of more federal funds motivates states and local districts to enact education reforms. Even though only two states, Delaware and Tennessee, won funding so far, many states changed laws and practices to improve school accountability and choice in the hopes that they, too, would qualify.

They did things like lift the cap on the number of permitted charter schools, set up data systems to measure student performance, and tie teacher evaluations to student achievement. States that didn’t win the first round of contest funds are working hard to qualify for the second round.

Similarly, any “teacher bailout” that Congress might pass should come with strings attached. House Democrats are now considering putting about $10 billion toward saving teacher jobs, a slimmed-down version of a $23 billion Senate bill that was recently felled by strong antideficit winds. The Senate version included no incentives related to seniority reform. The House version, which would be paid for by unspent Recovery Act money, should correct that mistake.


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