House votes to jettison teacher seniority system

  • Article by: KIM MCGUIRE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 16, 2012 - 11:16 PM

Opponents said the change would encourage districts to lay off older, higher-paid teachers.

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Rep. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, talks on the floor of the House as members discuss a bill that scrps the seniority-only provision for teachers in state law.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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The Minnesota House voted Thursday to scrap teacher tenure in the state and replace it with a plan that gives administrators the authority to consider performance when making decisions about layoffs.

The 68-61 vote for the Republican-backed legislation sets up a State Capitol battle between teachers unions that want to protect the fundamental labor tenet of seniority and legislators who say it dilutes education quality by sometimes protecting bad teachers.

"Experience matters, but the number of years served is not an adequate measure of ability, competence and success in teaching kids," said House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove. "We need to stand up for kids."

The proposal comes at a time when a growing number of Minnesota schools are shedding teachers to accommodate dwindling budgets and when the state's achievement gap shows no obvious sign of closing. Supporters said that's why legislators should act quickly to back the plan.

Minnesota is one of about a dozen states that make seniority the only factor in layoffs. If the proposed legislation becomes law, the state would join about 18 others that have moved toward performance-based decisions over the past two years.

The measure approved Thursday also would take licensure and tenure into account.

Opponents of the tenure change argue that it would encourage districts to lay off older, more highly paid teachers.

They also worry that without state seniority protection, layoff decisions would be left to administrators who might make arbitrary decisions that play to favorites.

They also say it isn't necessary to change the law.

About 40 percent of all state 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 have argued.

"It's disappointing the House has passed this bill, which does nothing to address the real challenges facing our schools," said Tom Dooher, executive director of Education Minnesota.

"But it will make it easier for districts to shed seasoned teachers for their less-experienced, less-expensive colleagues. This is not about student learning, it's about budget cutting."

Under the bill, sponsored by Rep. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, teachers rated as ineffective would lose their jobs first, from least senior to most senior within that category. But many teachers don't always fall neatly within the categories spelled out in the legislation, argued Rep. Kory Kath, DFL-Owatonna, who is also a high school political science and economics teacher.

That's why local school districts are in the best position to evaluate teachers, he said.

"And the elephant in the room that no one is really talking that much about is that this [Petersen's bill] does not affect probationary teachers," Kath said. "And that is who is affected by the vast majority of layoffs now."

It's unclear whether Gov. Mark Dayton, a former teacher and union backer, would veto the legislation should it clear the Senate.

Some lawmakers said that -- while they supported the intent of the legislation -- it seemed counterproductive to spend a great deal of time debating its merits when a veto seemed likely.

Petersen described an earlier meeting with Dayton as "constructive" but wouldn't speculate on whether the governor would ultimately support the plan.

The two plan to meet next week to discuss the bill, Petersen told colleagues in the House.

In a letter written to Petersen last week, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius raised concerns about the plan and insinuated it might face an uphill battle in getting Dayton's signature.

"The original continuing contract law, still in effect and in practice today, allows districts and teachers to negotiate their own process for layoffs that is appropriate to their local needs," Cassellius wrote. "Governor Dayton and I believe negotiations are best conducted by the parties most directly impacted and fully informed about their own unique circumstances and needs, not state government."

About 80 percent of Minnesotans agree that teacher effectiveness should be considered when making layoff and firing decisions, according to a recent survey by the Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now (MinnCAN).

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469

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