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Why let senior teachers get a free pass during layoffs?

By Ruben Navarrette, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Teacher layoffs pit education overhaul advocates against unions
  • Navarrette: Also, older teachers pitted against new teachers, the first to be laid off
  • Unions back older teachers, he says, and throw younger members to the wolves
  • New teachers often work for disadvantaged schools, making poor carry burden of layoffs
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Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr.. is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to CNN.com.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- As a frequent critic of teachers' unions for standing in the way of education reform, perpetuating a culture of low expectations and defending the interests of teachers even to the detriment of students, I'm accustomed to having union officials call me "anti-teacher."

Of course, I would hope that most of us would understand that criticizing a labor union isn't quite the same thing as criticizing its members. If you don't understand this, you might when you look at one of the latest and most contentious battles in the world of public education. It's over teacher layoffs, and the question of who gets let go and who gets to stay.

Once again, it pits the education overhaul advocates against teachers unions trying to preserve the status quo. But this time, with more than 300,000 teacher layoffs expected around the country, it's teacher vs. teacher.

In one corner, older and more experienced teachers who, having spent their whole career accumulating power in their school district and influence with the union that represents them, are calling in those markers to save their own skins.

In the other, younger and less experienced but often more idealistic teachers, some of whom were sought out and recruited by districts only to be the first fired in times of layoffs. The unions are backing the older teachers and throwing their younger members to the wolves.

This struggle is playing out most dramatically in large urban school districts such as those in Los Angeles, California, or New York, and in those blue states where teachers unions are most powerful because they've supported scores of Democratic lawmakers with votes and contributions.

In California and New York, state lawmakers are looking at legislation that would give district administrators more power to decide who gets fired and who gets retained according to effectiveness and need, instead of having their hands tied by current laws that require these decisions to be made according to seniority.

In many school districts, longevity acts as a shield against layoffs. Younger teachers with less experience suffer as a consequence. They have almost no power, and so they have no say in what happens to them.

At first blush, that kind of policy would seem to make sense. Experienced teachers are often valuable and hard to come by, and a school district would obviously like to keep as many of them as possible. Also, younger teachers may have an easier time finding new employment, either at another school district or in another field altogether.

But with scrutiny, it becomes clear that automatically retaining senior teachers just because they've been in the classroom a long time is not a smart policy. For one thing, it's another blow against the principle of competition, because it puts one group on notice that they're protected and that they don't have to compete for their job. That won't do much to enhance performance. Teaching is one of those things where doing it for a long time doesn't automatically mean doing it well.

There is also the fact that these younger teachers are often assigned to disadvantaged and underperforming schools. So firing them en masse would have a disastrous effect on the most needy schools. They are often replaced by substitute teachers, paid by the day, without benefits.

That's not fair. And that's why the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles School District in defense of younger teachers and the poor schools they serve. That's also why civil rights groups such as the NAACP are demanding poor districts and wealthier ones share the burden of teacher layoffs more equally.

All this is part of the newest headache for unions, which these days are just as likely to war with liberals as with conservatives. A lot of credit goes to the Obama administration, which has not shied away from confronting teachers unions in defense of higher standards and greater accountability. In doing so, the administration has made it socially acceptable for liberals to criticize teachers unions, which deserve their share of criticism.

And it provides another unfortunate example of where the Democratic Party -- in falling in line behind teachers unions -- is working against the interests of the same poor minorities who, at election time, instinctively and blindly vote for Democrats. Go figure. Isn't that like a turkey voting for Thanksgiving? Some people never learn.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.