The Republican majority in the Minnesota House took a solid step forward for K-12 education last week when it voted to require school districts to consider performance — not just seniority — when laying off teachers.
With House approval largely along party lines, the bill can now be considered by the DFL-dominated Senate. The Senate should approve the legislation and move it along to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who previously sided with the powerful Education Minnesota teachers union in opposing similar legislation.
Under Minnesota’s current “last in, first out” (LIFO) teacher tenure laws, schools must lay off teachers based on seniority only — unless school boards and the union negotiate their own layoff policies. The proposed bill would require districts to consider performance and licensure along with seniority.
There is considerable opposition to the change from many DFLers and from Education Minnesota. The union argues that the change would pit teachers against each other and discourage collaboration. When similar changes were debated in 2012, one opposing argument was that the state was in the process of developing teacher evaluations. Dayton called the tenure changes “premature” and vetoed a bill that the Legislature had passed with bipartisan support.
Now that statewide evaluation criteria are in place, opponents say they are too new to be effective and that teachers would likely take legal action to challenge evaluations if they are used to make layoff choices.
Seniority-only laws have already faced court challenges. Last year, a California court found in favor of a group of students who argued that the law in that state protected ineffective teachers and prevented students from having equal access to a good education. Minnesota is one of fewer than a dozen states that have a seniority-only law. The majority of states wisely understand the value of considering teacher effectiveness.
Union leaders counter that about 40 percent of Minnesota districts have already negotiated some deviations from seniority-only policies, making it unnecessary to change the law. Yet a recent Star Tribune analysis found that among those districts with locally negotiated contracts, few ever consider factors other than seniority. In cases where two teachers have equal seniority, those districts will use other factors ranging from extracurricular experience to college grade-point averages or even a coin flip to determine who goes or stays. That’s no way to make important school staffing decisions.
In 2012, there was significant public support for ending seniority-only layoffs. At that time, nearly 80 percent of Minnesotans agreed that teacher effectiveness should be considered in layoff and termination decisions, according to a Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now (MinnCAN) survey. That support remains steady. A KSTP/Survey USA poll released last month showed that 80 percent of state residents believe teacher layoffs should be conducted based on performance, while only 11 percent said seniority should be the only factor.
That broad-based support is reflected in coalitions of local business, parent, community and minority groups that want to save the best teachers from layoffs. In addition to MinnCAN, the national StudentsFirst education reform group supports the modified tenure law. And Educators for Excellence, a new group of about 1,000 teachers that includes Education Minnesota members, has joined the ranks of those who support changing current law.
Modifying Minnesota’s teacher tenure law would not be a cure-all for public education. It would, however, send an important signal that there are curbs on Education Minnesota. DFL lawmakers who buck the union would show a streak of moderation and independence that would be appreciated by a majority of Minnesotans, regardless of party affiliation.
Similarly, Dayton would prove that he is serious about improving education in Minnesota during his final term by taking this relatively modest but important step to ensure that the best teachers remain in Minnesota classrooms regardless of their date of hire.