The life story of “LIFO”

According to Dana Goldstein, the acronym LIFO did not come up in education discussions until May 19, 2010. In 2009, officials referred to “last in, first out” rules, but they did not use the acronym. Goldstein did some detective work to determine how and when the acronym entered education discussion. (The term “last in, first out” came up in education discussion in 2009, but people used the phrase, not the acronym.)

From what I can tell, the first American use of the LIFO acronym to refer to teacher seniority protections came on May 19, 2010 in an Education Week op-ed by Eric Hanushek, a prominent Stanford University education researcher and fellow at the free-market Hoover Institution. Hanushek introduced readers to the acronym and argued that ending LIFO would be a good way for cash-strapped states to cut costs during a recession.

I emailed Hanushek to ask him how he got the idea to apply “LIFO” to education. “I just know [the term LIFO] from accounting — and my use just picked up on the standard accounting jargon, which seemed to characterize the [teacher seniority] rules perfectly,” he wrote back. Now that teacher layoffs are a reality because of the recession, Hanushek wrote, people are paying more attention to the problem of good, young teachers losing their jobs because of seniority rules.

The New York Post used the acronym on January 25, 2011; according to Goldstein, over 300 news reports have used it since then.

Does the use of the acronym affect the discussion? It probably does. I don’t see a conspiracy in the use of the term–but, as Goldstein points out; “the acronym powerfully recalls one of the most potent critiques of teachers’ unions, that they provide incompetents with job protections for life.” It is hard not to hear “life” in “LIFO.”

In any case, it’s interesting that the acronym has such a short history in education discussion. And it’s generally good to know where terms come from, or at least to ask.

LIFO is out

Last-in, first-out layoffs are out in Georgia, reports Teacher Beat. It’s a trend.

The bill, SB 184, prohibits local boards of education from using seniority as the “primary or sole” determining factor when implementing a reduction in force. Boards that don’t comply can have some of their state education funds withheld.

Georgia’s action follows that of Utah, where a similar bill was recently signed into law. Other states that have recently ended LIFO through legislation include Oklahoma, Colorado, and Arizona, in addition to the District of Columbia through its recent teachers’ contract.

Illinois teachers’ unions have agreed to an anti-LIFO bill that allows both performance and seniority to be taken into account in deciding who get laid off.

Dennis Walcott, New York City’s new schools chancellor, wants a LIFO exemption from the state, but the teachers’ unions and Democrats in the legislature are opposed.

Not surprisingly, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has a no-LIFO plan as part of his education reform bill.

Detroit Public Schools is sending layoff notices to all teachers and administrators. Robert Bobb, the emergency financial manager who’s running the troubled district, said he’ll use a new law that lets him  modify or terminate collective bargaining agreements.

Detroit is losing enrollment. By pink-slipping everyone, Bobb opens the door to non-LIFO layoffs. He can  retain the teachers and administrators he thinks are best and lay off the rest.

LIFO threatens high-need schools

A 5 percent budget cut for Tacoma Public Schools could trigger layoffs for one quarter to one half the teachers at “turnaround” schools, concludes a study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

“Last in, first out” policies disproportionately affect Washington state schools receiving federal School Improvement Grants (SIGs). intended to transform chronically low-performing schools.

Many teachers in these schools are newly hired, chosen on the basis of high ability and commitment to education of disadvantaged children.

In Washington’s SIG schools, about 23% of teachers are in their first three years of teaching. That’s nearly twice the proportion of new teachers in other schools in the same districts.

LIFO layoffs could destabilize schools and undermine turnaround efforts, the study warns.

Under a court-ordered settlement, Los Angeles schools with high-need students and young teachers will be protected from layoffs.

Education Experts are discussing how to measure teacher effectiveness on National Journal.