Here’s what can happen when seniority alone drives teacher staffing decisions when layoffs occur: A dynamic teacher of the year, selected by peers, can find herself out of work. Educators who connect well with students because of their new-media skills could be laid off. Classroom leaders who speak languages other than English and are essential for English-language-learning classes might lose their jobs. A school community may have worked to build a strong Montessori program, only to have some of its best teachers forced to leave.
Losing great educators because of union contracts is not in the best educational interests of Minnesota kids and families. Quality of instruction is the most important in-school factor in student achievement, and Minnesota needs the best and brightest in its classrooms. To that end, a handful of proposed legislative measures that would give school districts more staffing flexibility during layoffs deserve hearings.
Under Minnesota’s current teacher-tenure laws, schools must lay off educators based only on seniority unless the individual school board and teachers union negotiate their own layoff policies. In other words, absent a negotiated alternative plan, school boards are legally required to base layoffs on seniority only.
The proposed measures would remove the seniority-only default provision from state law. One would require districts to negotiate a plan that is based primarily on teacher effectiveness. Another would make teacher effectiveness the default position. A third proposal would require districts to consider teacher performance, licensure and seniority when making staff cuts.
In 2012, a bill to repeal the seniority-only provision was passed by the House and the Senate. It was known as the “LIFO” bill, which stood for “last in, first out” — also known as last hired, first fired. The bill, which had support from this page and education-reform advocates statewide, was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton.
The proposed changes deserve more bipartisan traction this year, even though both chambers now have DFL majorities that seldom back reforms opposed by the powerful Education Minnesota teachers union.
However, reform-minded DFL Sen. Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka is the author of one of the bills, and she has been a longtime supporter of tenure changes. She has rightly argued that existing rules that force districts to let effective teachers go cannot stand if our schools are serious about improving student achievement.
In addition, Minnesota is an outlier in this area. This is one of about a dozen states that make seniority the sole factor in layoffs. Removing this provision from state law would allow Minnesota to join 20 other states that have moved toward performance-based decisions in recent years. In this state, support for multiple-measure decisionmaking is broad-based, and it includes a number of parent, community, business, civic and nonprofit organizations, as well as education-advocacy groups such as StudentsFirst Minnesota.
And according to some surveys, a majority of Minnesotans agree. Not surprisingly, a study conducted by the Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now (MinnCAN) found that 80 percent of Minnesotans believe that teacher effectiveness should be considered when making layoff and firing decisions.
Another legislative proposal would leave existing law in place, but give districts the option to exempt a certain percentage of teachers from the seniority rule. The proposal doesn’t go as far as it should, but it would be a compromise first step toward more significant reform.
No doubt experience matters in teaching, as in any profession. Pay schedules in district contracts recognize that fact. But research shows that after a teacher has spent about five years on the job, the number of years in the classroom does not necessarily correlate with effectiveness.
By adopting smart modifications to teacher-tenure laws, the Legislature and Dayton would simply be backing the common-sense concept of giving school districts more flexibility to make the best possible staffing decisions. Minnesotans who want the best teachers in the classroom should demand progress on tenure in 2014.