Teacher buyouts: a necessary reform

Our view: City schools' buyout package for teachers is a means to an end, not an end in itself

April 20, 2011

The city school department's offer of early retirement buyouts to its most experienced teachers has attracted about 330 applicants — enough, school officials say, to go ahead with a plan intended to save the system millions of dollars over the coming years. But while maintaining financial stability is essential to keeping Baltimore's school reform process on track, the real challenge will be to translate those savings into measurable growth in student achievement and better classroom instruction.

Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Andrés Alonso announced the buyout package for teachers with 10 years' experience or more in February, at a time when the schools were facing a $73 million budget deficit for 2012 and significant cuts in state funding that could force the city to lay off hundreds of teachers. The idea was to encourage teachers nearing retirement to leave the system early in exchange for 75 percent of their current salaries, spread over five years. Those who took the offer would still receive their full pension benefits when they reach retirement age.

School officials said at the time that the buyouts were urgently needed to help reduce the number of so-called "surplus" teachers — instructors who, for whatever reason, don't have permanent placements at the beginning of each school year and who have cost the city about $18 million since 2008. This year alone, the pool of more than 100 surplus teachers is expected to cost the city about $5.5 million. Freeing up some of those funds would give school principals more money to devote to other important areas of instruction, such as libraries, computer labs, athletic programs and music and art classes.

Of course, the danger in any buyout is always that some of the best employees may choose to leave. But that seems less likely given the landmark teachers contract approved by the union last year, which offers the promise of significantly higher salaries for teachers who are most able to boost student performance. Good teachers will be rewarded for staying, while those who are struggling have been handed a golden opportunity to make a graceful exit. The spike in teacher applications the school system has received since the contract was approved suggests Baltimore could be well positioned to pick and choose from among the best and brightest.

Putting great teachers in every classroom and then holding them accountable for results has been the core principle of all the reforms put in place by Mr. Alonso. If the buyout plan helps winnow out the teachers who aren't effective in the classroom, and replace them with teachers who are, it will mark another important step toward meaningful school reform here. But saving money through targeted staff reductions is a means to that end — not an end in itself. What counts are the results it produces, which must be measured not in dollars but in the higher academic success rates achieved by an entire generation of Baltimore schoolchildren.

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