Few want teacher seniority scrapped

  • Article by: TOM DOOHER
  • Updated: February 18, 2012 - 4:41 PM

It's just not what Minnesotans are concerned about, nor where legislative attention is needed.

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Lynda Ihlan, who teaches science at Boeckman Middle School, was concerned about the bill that passed the House yesterday that would eliminate teacher tenure in Minnesota in Farmington Min., Friday, February 17, 2012.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Every child in Minnesota deserves a great teacher in a first-class school. That is indisputable. However, a bill moving through the Legislature that takes aim at the job security of experienced teachers puts us no closer to that goal.

Instead, the House bill sponsored by Rep. Branden Peterson, R-Andover, and endorsed by the Star Tribune ("Scrap seniority-only teacher tenure law," editorial, Feb. 12), jumbles two very different subjects: evaluating teachers and managing layoffs.

First, let's be clear about what this bill won't do. It won't reverse the inflation-adjusted 13 percent drop in per-pupil funding from the state since 2003. It won't shrink a single overcrowded classroom or replace a solitary outdated textbook. It won't repay a dime of the billions owed by the state government to schools.

These are the education issues Minnesotans actually worry about. MinnCan, a vocal supporter of the current legislation, recently released a poll showing that Minnesotans overwhelmingly believe the most important challenge facing our public schools is budget cuts.

There's no groundswell of support for the bill. That same MinnCan poll found that 81 percent of Minnesotans give their local teachers a "good" or "excellent" rating. That's not unusual. Many polls have found Minnesotans are justifiably proud of their schools. Minnesota's graduation rates and ACT scores are among the highest in the nation.

Nonetheless, the antiseniority bill has become this session's most-discussed education issue. The supporters of the bill begin with the false premise that current state law requires that a teacher's seniority be the lone deciding factor in layoffs. It doesn't. For decades, school districts and teachers have had flexibility to negotiate whatever layoff is best for their local students.

Education Minnesota estimates that about 40 percent of the state's 338 school districts have done so. A recent review of the contracts of the largest 35 districts in the state found that 19 of them, with 270,000 students, have crafted their own processes.

It's only when districts don't reach a local agreement that they use the seniority system, which says that once the probationary teachers are let go, the most inexperienced members of the teaching staff are laid off. It's an objective process that recognizes the value of experience. Research has repeatedly shown that students tend to be more successful when they have seasoned teachers.

Current law has also provided a level of job security to teachers who pressure administrators to do more for kids, including those in special-education programs. Retribution for student advocacy isn't protected in state and federal employment laws.

The bill would remove any incentive for school districts to negotiate local solutions with their teachers by replacing the current objective system with a very different default process -- a teacher rating structure that will vary from district to district and may be based on no more than one year's test scores.

This new rating system may not mesh with the teacher evaluation framework passed by the Legislature last year. Educators are meeting in local school districts and with the Minnesota Department of Education to hash out the details, including how to meet the requirement that 35 percent of the evaluation be based on test scores. It's a sticky rule for educators in fields without standardized tests, like guidance counselors.

So we're left with a proposal that isn't a priority for the public and fails to recognize the flexibility already in law. It could undermine the efforts of teachers and administrators around the state who have been working on last year's teacher evaluation law. So what's the rush?

For one thing, it's an easy distraction from the real issues facing our schools. It will also make it much simpler for administrators faced with layoffs to shed seasoned professionals for their less-experienced, less-expensive colleagues. This is not about student learning. This is about budget cutting.

Self-proclaimed reformers may use this bill to talk about some pressing need to improve teacher effectiveness through layoffs, but Minnesotans can sniff out a red herring. In that MinnCan poll, the share of Minnesotans who identified low-quality teachers as the most important problem in our schools: 4 percent. The margin of error in that poll: 4 percentage points.

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Tom Dooher is president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers union.

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