The “national teacher shortage” has dominated news headlines for months now, with states and districts investing resources toward ensuring that vacancies are filled. States have invested their COVID-relief funds in efforts to address these teacher shortages and many are using this opportunity to address long-standing shortages of teachers of color by investing in strategies to increase the diversity of the education workforce. Given these conditions, it may feel ironic and premature to talk about teacher layoffs — but with federal COVID-relief funds being spent and a looming recession, a potential fiscal cliff could mean that districts across the country will be forced to significantly cut their budgets and reduce the number of teachers in their schools.

Over the past several years, states have answered the call to diversify the educator workforce by recruiting and hiring a disproportionate number of new teachers of color to serve as leaders in their schools. In fact, teachers of color nationally are much more likely than White teachers to be in their first or second year of teaching. But this comes with a caveat: Ed Trust research has shown that retention is still a large issue for teachers of color, meaning the work is just beginning to create a diverse and sustainable workforce. States and districts must address working conditions, growth opportunities, and ensuring that schools are safe and culturally affirming school for teachers of color, among other retention strategies.

However, these recruitment and retention efforts that are designed to ensure a diverse educator workforce won’t matter if states don’t address one important policy lever: seniority-based layoff policies. According to Educators for Excellence (E4E) and TNTP’s new report, So All Students Thrive: Rethinking Layoff Policy to Protect Teacher Diversity, seniority is among the most common factors districts use to determine which teachers are laid off. As a result, the teachers who were most recently hired are typically the first who are fired, also known as “last-in, first-out,” or LIFO. The significant investments states have made to increase the diversity of the workforce and ensure that all students have access to teachers who look like them and share their experiences would be significantly undone by LIFO policies.

On the bright side, the E4E/TNTP report lays out a set of policy recommendations and a roadmap to change layoff policies that could do harm to efforts to increase the diversity of the workforce. Some states and districts have already answered this call by taking other factors into account when making layoff decisions in addition to experience, like protecting teachers from underrepresented populations and protecting those who have shown evidence of cultural or linguistic expertise. Others have allowed exceptions for “hard to staff” positions and schools, which are often filled by teachers of color or in schools that serve a high percentage of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.

The best part about changing these policies now is that it does not interfere with efforts to grow the profession and address teacher shortages. Instead, changing these policies addresses a long-standing problem that could undo the progress that has been made to diversify the educator workforce.  Fortunately, The E4E/TNTP report provides information to advocates about their state’s policy while offering a roadmap to changing it that can be customized to fit the state’s conditions. This is a call to action for advocates to start pushing their states and districts to reform these policies before cuts are made — and before it’s too late.