Bill aiming to curtail teacher seniority clears hurdle in Pa. House

The west facade of the Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa. (Carolyn Kaster/AP photo)

The west facade of the Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa. (Carolyn Kaster/AP photo)

In a bipartisan 16-8 vote, the Pennsylvania House Education Committee has greenlighted a bill that would eliminate state-mandated seniority protections for teachers.

HB 1722, sponsored by state Rep. Tim Krieger, R-Westmoreland, would require districts to base layoffs on a teacher’s performance as measured by the state’s new teacher evaluation system.

Now, 499 of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts are required to base teacher layoff and recall decisions on the inverse order of seniority, sometimes referred to as “last in, first out.”

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission, flexing its “special powers,” suspended the state code that protects teachers based on longevity. The school district has called on the state Supreme Court to provide a ruling that would affirm that the SRC has this right.

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The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has petitioned the court to reject the district’s position – arguing that work-rule changes should be negotiated at the bargaining table. The union’s contract expired at the end of August; since then, negotiations have screeched along without any signs of progress.

HB 1722 also would allow districts to eliminate staff based on budgetary shortfalls. Aside from Philadelphia, state school districts now can order layoffs only when student enrollment declines or by eliminating specific programs.

Critics of the status quo say this leads many Pennsylvania districts to make wholesale cuts to programs such as art, music and kindergarten when revenues decline.

All Republicans on the education committee voted to advance the bill. Two Democrats, James Clay, D- Philadelphia, and Jake Wheatley, D-Allegheny, joined them.

Krieger, the bill’s sponsor, said the measure will “protect good teachers and make schools better.”

“If you’re a young teacher, and you’re doing a great job, you shouldn’t be furloughed because you haven’t been there that long,” he said.

Krieger lamented that the Pittsburgh School District had to cut 16 young teachers last year who carried a “distinguished” evaluation.

This is not an issue that has particularly affected schools within Krieger’s legislative district.

“We hear more of the complaints and more of the requests for this, frankly, from places like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia,” he said.

Why didn’t a legislator representing one of those districts propose the measure?

“I don’t know. I guess none of them were willing to do it,” Krieger said. “And I thought it was a good idea.”

Krieger’s original bill proposed increasing the time it takes teachers to earn tenure from three to five years. That provision died before leaving committee.

Minority chair James Roebuck, D-Philadelphia, argued that teacher seniority has “traditionally worked” and that the proposed bill has “a lot of problems.”

“I don’t get the idea that somehow there’s such great teachers coming in that are largely unseasoned that are somehow trumping well-established teachers in the classroom,” he said. “I’ve seen very little evidence of that.”

Roebuck contends that the debate over seniority has been manufactured by what he sees as the state’s underfunding of public education.

“If you fund schools properly, you don’t have to [lay teachers off],” he said. “I think this is looking at a self-created problem of saying, ‘because we created this problem, now we’ve got to do something else.'”

The state’s new teacher evaluation system will grade educators based on principal observation, evidence provided by teachers themselves, and students’ standardized test scores as averaged over a three-year period.

Roebuck worries that the new system isn’t ready.

“The problem is taking this new system that hasn’t even been fully tested or implemented and using that to make rather major decisions,” he said.

Jonathan Cetel, executive director of the school-reform advocacy group PennCAN, exalted the committee’s action.

“The house leadership said something that I’ve often heard — that voters would be shocked to learn that this already isn’t law, that we’re not already making important personnel decisions based on how well a teacher is doing with students,” said Cetel.

Gov. Tom Corbett has long supported changing teacher tenure.

Gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf has gone on the record in favor of the state’s existing teacher seniority rules.

“Are there teachers who may not be teaching up to par? Yeah. There are in any organization,” he said at an education panel discussion in Philadelphia in April. “The system we have now has a way to identify those teachers and relieve them of their duties.”

The bill will now go before the full House of Representatives, where leaders have been receptive to its aims.

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