The teacher workforce in Massachusetts is overwhelmingly white: 90.4 percent of teachers and 81.3 percent of paraprofessionals in all public schools statewide are white, according to 2022 state data. The student body is far more diverse: 24.2 percent Hispanic, 9.4 percent Black, 7.3 percent Asian, and 54.4 percent white, according to 2022 figures.
There isn’t a more well-accepted truism in education than the profound, positive impact that teachers of color can have on students’ educational outcomes. Research has shown that students of color benefit when they are taught by an educator of the same race or ethnicity.
Two worthy legislative proposals aim to close the gap — one controversial, the other not. With widespread support, state Representative Alice Peisch and state Senator Jason Lewis refiled the Educator Diversity Act earlier this year, which was first introduced in the last legislative session. The bill aims to boost teacher diversity by establishing alternative certification pathways for would-be teachers; requiring school districts to collect teacher diversity data and create a diversity plan with specific goals and timetables; and launching an educator diversity grant fund. It’s supported by practically all education stakeholders statewide, including the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Boston Teachers Union, the latter of which lists it among its legislative priorities.
The other idea has met a far rockier reception.
That legislation, filed by state Senator Pavel Payano, who represents Lawrence, Methuen, and parts of Haverhill, seeks to protect young educators — who are more likely to be teachers of color — from layoffs. In doing so, it touches a third rail of education policy: the seniority system that affords long-tenured teachers the most job protection.
Right now, a provision in state law requires that teachers without professional teacher status — or nontenured teachers who have typically taught for fewer than three years — be the first let go during layoffs. If districts have to lay off tenured teachers, those decisions may also be seniority-based, though other factors can be bargained into union contracts.
Nationally, teachers of color are nearly 50 percent more likely to be in their first or second year of teaching than their white peers. But in Massachusetts, that probability is more than double, at 107 percent.
Considering factors other than seniority is not a radical idea. According to a new report from national nonprofits Educators for Excellence and The New Teacher Project, 20 states allow districts to decide what factors to consider during teacher layoffs, which may or may not include seniority. Meanwhile, Massachusetts is one of a dozen states that have laws on the books requiring that districts use some form of seniority-based criteria when deciding which teachers to lay off.
The legislation doesn’t remove seniority or tenure, Payano told the Globe editorial board. He said his focus is to ensure that quality nontenured teachers who meet specific criteria are protected in the event of layoffs.
Both the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Boston Teachers Union oppose the bill because it “attacks vital ‘professional teacher status’ protections for public school teachers” and “would decrease the job security of all experienced educators, including educators of color,” Max Page, the president of the MTA, said in a statement.
In an unsigned statement, the BTU said that the exemption proposed in the legislation would open loopholes that would enable the district to essentially get rid of whomever it wanted in the event of layoffs.
But the eight exemptions that would protect a teacher from a layoff are specific and limited. They include: if the teacher is a member of a population underrepresented among certified teachers in the district; if they are certified in a subject for which there is a shortage of teachers in the district, which may include science, special education, or English as a second language; and a teacher who earned the Teacher of the Year award, among others.
To its credit, the BTU has pushed for teacher diversity in Boston, a district where students are 43.8 percent Hispanic, 28.4 percent Black, 8.7 percent Asian, and 15.1 percent white, according to 2022 state data. For example, the BTU established the George B. Cox Retention Fellows, which focuses on the retention of highly qualified educators of color, according to the union spokesperson. The latest BTU contract has explicit supports to help educators of color pass the state’s teacher licensure test, extends the time window to get licensure, and secures reimbursements for the cost of the tests, which are expensive, according to the union.
And yet Boston teacher diversity data show there’s still a lot more work to be done: Of the roughly 4,300 teachers in Boston Public Schools, 11.1 percent are Hispanic; 22.4 percent Black, 6.5 percent Asian, and 59.5 percent white. It shouldn’t be a choice between efforts like the union’s and legislation like Payano’s: Districts need both.
And there are reasons to be concerned about layoffs in the near future — even with the revenue from the recently passed millionaires tax. For one, “the biggest-ever, one-time injection of federal cash” into school districts will run out in just a year and a half, as Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, wrote in an op-ed. When federal pandemic aid dries out, a “perfect storm of financial pressures will” inevitably come to a district near you, Roza wrote. Her “analysis suggests [that] the gaps in 2024-25 will be worse than the last recession,” she wrote. That’s because districts’ financial teams also have to contend with inflationary pressures on teacher pay — a school system’s biggest expense — and the impact on budgets of declining school enrollment.
Consider this historical lesson: During the Great Recession of 2008, there were over 120,000 elementary and secondary teachers laid off, according to a research article published in the Education Finance and Policy journal last year. Most of those layoffs were implemented through seniority-based “last-in, first-out” policies. Researchers found that those policies are inequitable because they “disproportionately affect disadvantaged students” since this population is more likely to be taught by early career teachers and that “seniority-based layoffs result in proportionally larger concentrations of layoffs among teachers of color because they are more likely to be early career teachers relative to white teachers.”
“The key here is that the bill is adding criteria to longevity. I’m hard pressed to understand anybody that would be against it,” said Payano.
If Massachusetts is to achieve its goal of increasing the share of educators of color to 26 percent by 2030, then the state Legislature must ensure that state education officials and district leaders have as many tools as possible to tackle such a persistent gap. To that end, tweaking the teacher layoff policy in narrow ways and broadening the pipeline of educators of color are two policies that, combined, hold a lot of promise.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.