A legislative effort to increase the diversity of the state’s teaching corps could weaken job protections for veteran educators, a trade-off that has sparked controversy and drawn opposition from the state’s largest teachers unions.
Under the bill, filed earlier this year, superintendents and principals would gain greater discretion to protect novice teachers during a layoff if they are part of an underrepresented demographic group or qualify for one of several other exemptions, including teaching in a critical shortage area such as math, science, and special education. That, in turn, could jeopardize the job status of some rank-and-file educators who had already reached “professional status,” a designation akin to tenure that is typically granted to teachers after completing three years of service.
Currently, state law generally requires teachers without professional status to be laid off first, albeit with some exceptions, including job performance.
The state’s largest teachers unions are backing a different bill that focuses on expanding and creating initiatives to increase the diversity of the educator workforce and wouldn’t touch state law governing layoffs.
The legislation changing seniority rules is one of the most significant attempts in more than a decade to weaken seniority protections for teachers.
Supporters of the legislation say they are seeking the changes primarily to help districts preserve gains in teacher diversity. Losing those teachers, they say, could be detrimental to students of color in a state where 90 percent of teachers are white.
“I understand firsthand what it means for kids to see somebody who looks like them or speaks their language, especially someone in an instructional capacity,” said Representative Priscila Sousa, a Democrat sponsoring the bill who also chairs the Framingham School Committee. The students “are so much more engaged and invested in their education.”
Sousa, a Brazilian immigrant, said one of the most impactful experiences she had as a student in Framingham was having a teacher who spoke Portuguese when she was 9, helping provide her with a sense of belonging.
But teachers unions argue the exemptions in the bill are so broad they would jeopardize the jobs of most teachers, including those it aims to protect.
“Saying that the best way to increase educator diversity is by reducing the job security of all educators and by subjecting them to further potential bias in cases of potential dismissal, termination, or layoff presents a false choice,” Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said in a statement.
The union faults local school district leaders and principals for decades of failures to diversify their teacher corps.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts question why there’s a need to change layoff language when there’s a nationwide shortage of teachers and note that massive teacher layoffs are rare.
However, individual districts at times lay off teachers, when property tax overrides fail, for instance, or when schools are closed to address declining enrollment.
The legislation is being pushed by Educators for Excellence, a national teacher advocacy organization, and TNTP, a national nonprofit that works on education issues. The organizations released a report in February that warned schools nationwide could lose ground on educator diversity if layoffs continue to be made largely according to seniority, which can benefit the older, predominantly white teaching force.
In Massachusetts, a teacher of color is 107 percent more likely to be in their first or second year of teaching than a white teacher — the highest rate in the nation, according to the groups’ report.
“It’s egregious that we have a law on the books that we know can have a disproportionate impact,” said Lisa Lazare, executive director of the Boston chapter of Educators for Excellence. “Right now, in the best of all worlds, the law won’t be triggered at all, but unfortunately we are living in a world where we see enrollment declines and we are seeing districts having these really tough conversations about how to address it.”
She also noted that while many districts are still flush with federal stimulus dollars, that money will run out soon and some districts, such as Newton and Marblehead, already are experiencing financial difficulties and preparing for possible staff reductions.
Boston Public Schools also is bracing for diminishing federal money, as well as potential school closures and mergers to address a loss of more than 8,000 students over the last decade. A BPS spokesperson expressed confidence the district won’t have to lay off teachers.
Sousa and Senator Pavel Payano, a Lawrence Democrat who is sponsoring the companion legislation in his chamber, are in the early stages of building support for the bill.
Debate over how to increase educator diversity comes amid a growing body of research that has found teachers of color have positive impacts on the achievement of students, especially those of the same race or ethnicity.
About 10 percent of the state’s 79,000 teachers during the 2021-22 school year identified as Black, Latino, Asian, or another racial minority, an increase of about 2 percentage points from the 2016-17 school year, according to the most recent state data.
By comparison, students of color make up about 45 percent of the 913,735 enrolled in the state’s public schools.
Teachers unions contend a better way to shrink the divide lies with the other bill, the Educator Diversity Act, which would address other systemic barriers to expanding educator diversity. That proposal, which has the support of dozens of legislators, includes creating alternative ways to certification in a state where disproportionately high rates of Black and Latino educators are failing the licensing exams; mandating antibias training for school committees, district leaders, and hiring committees; and funding educator diversity initiatives.
The bill would build upon current efforts to diversify the workforce, which also include alternative paths to certification.
State Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler recently spoke at an event, sponsored by Latinos for Education, to relaunch an effort to pass the Educator Diversity Act. The House had passed a version of that legislation last year as an amendment to an economic stimulus bill, but the Senate removed it.
Delaney Corcoran, a spokesperson for the state’s executive office of education, indicated in a statement that the Healey administration hasn’t taken a position on the layoff bill yet.
A Black teacher in BPS, who asked not to be named because she has not obtained professional status yet, said she supports giving districts some flexibility with layoffs.
“Seniority is important, but it shouldn’t be the sole determining factor,” the teacher said, adding BPS could do more to support new teachers. “I definitely found great mentors and had people look out for me. On the other hand, I feel like you’re thrown into the deep end to sink or swim.”
Eduardo Rojas, a longtime BPS teacher who retired last year, said he opposes weakening seniority rights, noting that perk provides broad protection.
“Teachers, whether Black, Hispanic or white . . . deserve to have security,” said Rojas, cautioning that diminishing seniority rights could prompt teachers to leave. “They might create a major problem.”