Gov. Wolf to consider bill that would weaken teacher seniority, among other school policy shifts

The Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill Wednesday that would alter a wide range of state policies related to public education — including the weakening of seniority protections

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has decided to let the school code bill become law without his signature. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo, file)

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has decided to let the school code bill become law without his signature. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo, file)

The Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill Wednesday that would alter a wide range of state policies related to public education — including the weakening of seniority protections for teachers.

The chamber agreed to the omnibus school code bill, as passed last week by the House of Representatives, by a vote of 35 to 15.  Now it will go before Gov. Tom Wolf, who says he has “serious concerns” about some of its provisions.

The legislation would allow school districts to cite economic distress as a reason for making teacher layoffs. Currently, state policy dictates that layoffs can only occur when enrollment dips, when specific academic programs are slashed, or when schools consolidate. School boards and administrators have felt hemmed in by these regulations and laud the added flexibility the bill allows.

Instead of eliminating an entire art, music, or full-day kindergarten program, they say the new rule opens the door to, when needed, more careful trimming.

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“It may allow you to reorganize the staff a little bit more efficiently, and cover the courses and teaching assignments that you think would better meet the needs of the kids,” said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. “It does give districts a little bit more flexibility that way.”

When making layoffs, school districts traditionally abide by strict seniority rules, following a “last in, first out” motto.

This legislation compels districts to use the state’s teacher effectiveness rating system when making layoff decisions. Teachers with “unsatisfactory” ratings for two consecutive years would be let go first, followed consecutively by those with “needs improvement,” “proficient,” and finally “distinguished” ratings.

Pennsylvania’s teacher effectiveness rating system went into effect in the 2013-14 school year.

Four tenets comprise a teacher’s rating:

  • 50% classroom observation
  • 15% building-level standardized test data
  • 15% teacher-specific standardized test data
  • 20% elective data that the school determines

All ratings being equal, teacher seniority would continue to dictate layoff order.

“These are some of the accountability measures that our people want — and I think people in general want — in order to ensure that students are getting the most out of the dollars that we’re putting into schools,” said Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Republicans.

Most Republicans in the senate voted to approve the school code. Three democrats, including Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), joined them.

The state’s largest teacher’s union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, blasted the move.

“That seems to be a very wrongheaded policy. We ought to be talking about how to improve teacher training and keep good teachers in the classroom rather than look for more expedited ways to get rid of them,” said PSEA spokesman Wythe Keever.

The General Assembly passed a bill to weaken teacher seniority with similar language in 2016, but it was vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf.

Then, as now, the bill says teacher compensation cannot be considered when making decisions, and says districts seeking to downsize must also lay off an equal percentage of administrative staff, unless given a special waiver from the state.

The Wolf administration is being tight-lipped about what the governor will do next. When he vetoed last year, he argued that districts already have power to remove ineffective teachers from classrooms, and said the state should not interfere with local staffing decisions based on a teacher evaluation metric he believes is flawed.

It’s unclear, though, how he will now act, as the provision is one of many in a larger bill that was passed in the context of a long, contentious, and still unresolved state budget battle.

The school code bill, though, does not require passage to finalize the budget. That’s a separate prospect that’s inching near completion and hinging on the General Assembly’s approved gaming expansion.

Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott talked about the school code bill in context of the other legislation crossing the governor’s desk.

“Governor Wolf is going to work over the next few days to evaluate the code bills and gaming expansion on his desk and make decisions on the entirety of them. These bills contain many policy changes and deserve a full vetting and due diligence,” said Abbott.

The teaching profession in Pennsylvania seems to have become much less popular in recent years, with large declines in the number of college students majoring in education and the number of teaching certifications awarded by the state.

Declines have been especially precipitous for those teaching math and science subjects.

PSEA expects 9,000 teachers to retire in next five years, and 20,000 in next ten years.

A medley of other changes

The bill’s other effects are widespread.

It allows for the creation of Multiple Charter School Organizations, which would allow charter organizations with multiple schools that meet fiscal and academic thresholds to streamline operations under one roof.

That’s a big deal for an organization like Philadelphia’s Mastery Charter Schools, which currently has to treat each of its more than a dozen schools as a distinct entity, each with it’s own board of trustees.

The change will mean it will be able to act more like a traditional school district that oversees a slate of schools.

“It allows us to operate more efficiently so we can spend more money on kids and not administration,” said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon. “This allows us to modernize, have better governance and more efficiently use taxpayer dollars.”

The bill also calls for the legislature to have more input on the plans created by the state department of education to comply with federal laws.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Eichelberger (R-Blair) and House Education Committee Chairman Dave Hickernell (R-Dauphin) were particularly upset that PDE didn’t include them more formally in the plan submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in September to comply with the new Every Student Succeeds Act.

“The plan kicks the can down the road, and appears to benefit the education establishment and its consultants more than the children of Pennsylvania,” Eichelberger wrote in a statement at the time.

The school code bill gives the House and Senate education committees a 15 day review period before submission of any such plan, and requires PDE to complete quarterly reports on its progress toward implementation.

The bill also makes clear that any district that receives “educational access funding” — a special, controversial subsidy to distressed districts — is placed under supervision of financial advisor.

It also bans the practice of so-called “lunch shaming,” ensuring that every child who wants a school meal can get one regardless of the child’s ability to pay.

It delays the use of high school standardized tests as a graduation requirement for an additional year, making the class of 2020 the new first class eligible.

When high school Keystone Exams were originally created, the class of 2017 was slated to be the first required to pass exams in literature, algebra and biology in order to earn a diploma.

But with pass rates on the exams far below the state’s current graduation rate, lawmakers have now made a habit of punting this requirement.

Students in grades 6-12 would be required to get instruction on the prevention of the opioid crisis, with emphasis on the prescription drug epidemic.

And the bill also boosts the cap on what business can give to scholarship organizations in Educational Improvement Tax Credits, from $75 million to $85 million.

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