At issue in Capitol fight is a fundamental labor tenet that some say dilutes education quality.
Parents, teachers and education activists squared off at the Capitol Tuesday over a Republican proposal that would transform the way Minnesota school districts conduct teacher layoffs by scrapping seniority, the sacred tenet of most teachers unions.
The proposal would effectively put an end to a state mandate that requires school districts to consider seniority when conducting layoffs. It's the latest attempt to identify and protect good teachers in Minnesota while giving lousy ones the boot.
Faced with a growing number of cash-strapped districts and demand for teacher accountability, Minnesota now joins several states looking to change long-standing seniority rules for teachers with the controversial plan.
"They [students] need a teacher who is going to make a difference whether they've been there one year, 10 years or 30 years," said Sarah Schultes, an Andersen Open Elementary teacher who testified before a House education committee in support of the plan.
But leaders of several Minnesota teachers unions argued that students will suffer if Minnesota loses its most experienced teachers.
"Experience is valued in every other profession," said Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. "Why would it be ignored in ours?"
Minnesota is one of about a dozen states in the nation that still require school districts to consider seniority when conducting layoffs. In recent years, Colorado, Wisconsin, Georgia, Utah, Oklahoma and Utah have passed laws chipping away at teacher seniority.
About 40 percent of all Minnesota school districts have agreements with teachers unions that acknowledge factors other than just seniority, according to Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union.
Those local contracts give school districts some flexibility, while bestowing some sense of security on good teachers, many of whom have several years of experience, union members argued.
"I know good teachers," Ricker said. "My standards are very, very high. I don't want good teachers laid off whether they are in their first year or their 40th."
Peter Eckhoff, president of the Robbinsdale Federation of Teachers, said he worried the proposal sets up administrators to arbitrarily "pick and choose" which teachers are let go in the event of a layoff.
A work in progress
Last year, legislators approved establishing Minnesota's first formal teacher evaluation process. A task force is working out the details of that plan, including how to connect student and teacher performance.
Opponents of the Republican proposal argued the evaluation system should be in place before moving away from seniority-based layoffs. Known as "last in, first out," the seniority provision serves as the foundation for most union contracts.
The legislation's sponsor, Branden Petersen, R-Andover, said that's exactly what the plan does, noting nothing would change until 2015, about one year after the evaluation work is expected to be complete.
He described an earlier meeting with Gov. Mark Dayton to discuss the proposal as "constructive," but wouldn't speculate on whether the governor would ultimately support the plan should it make it through the legislative process. Dayton, a former teacher and union supporter, has not publicly expressed interest in changing teacher tenure.
Almost 80 percent of Minnesotans believe laying off teachers based solely on experience hurts the quality of education for students, according to a soon-to-be released survey conducted by the Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now, an education advocacy group.
Lynnell Mickelsen, a long-time DFLer and Minneapolis Public School parent, said it felt odd to join Republicans in support of the plan.
Still, doing away with seniority-based layoffs is the right thing to do, said Mickelsen, co-founder of Put Kids First Minneapolis, a group of parents hoping to change the way teachers are hired, assigned and evaluated.
In Minneapolis, she said, some ineffective teachers have been protected during layoffs and students ultimately paid the price.
"The whole thing is just a mess," she said.
Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469