After heavy opposition and efforts to draw out a vote by Democrats, the GOP-led House on Thursday approved legislation that would require school districts to consider performance, not just seniority, when laying off teachers.
The 70-63 vote was largely along party lines and came after nearly seven hours of debate and numerous proposed amendments ahead of the final count. Rep. Tony Cornish of Vernon Center was the only Republican to vote against the bill.
A top priority for Republicans, the legislation would end seniority as the primary factor in determining teacher layoffs, a process commonly referred to as “last in, first out.” While the legislation passed the House, its prospects in the DFL-led Senate are murky where two bills, including one sponsored by a DFL senator, have yet to receive committee hearings.
The House bill would also make it easier for out-of-state teachers to become licensed in Minnesota, a process critics say is currently too cumbersome and requires the help of a lawyer to navigate. The bill would require the state’s Board of Teaching to allow educators from neighboring states to transfer their license to Minnesota.
Republican Rep. Jenifer Loon of Eden Prairie, sponsor of the bill, told legislators the measure would help address teacher shortages and also end a policy she says is unpopular with parents, citing recent poll figures.
“If you ask parents, ‘Do you think it makes sense if we can’t keep all of our teachers that we just keep the most senior teachers … and performance evaluations would not be part of that process?’ ” Loon said, “I don’t know a single parent that would say that’s a good idea.”
Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, has fought against such proposals for years, arguing that current law keeps the most experienced educators in the classroom and provides a stable framework for layoffs. Moreover, the union argues that using teacher evaluations to determine which staff are cut would undermine a newly implemented teacher evaluation law because peer reviews are a component. It warned in recent committee hearings that teachers, in fearing for their jobs, would challenge their evaluations.
The “last in, first out” debate isn’t new. Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a similar bill in 2012, calling it premature because a teacher evaluation law had not yet been implemented. With that statute now in place, Republicans and a DFL senator say it’s time to end the current seniority-guided system of layoffs.
Minnesota is one of fewer than a dozen states where a teacher’s job security is determined largely by the date of hire. Hundreds of Minnesota teachers lose their jobs each year during budget cuts because state law and union contracts protect more senior teachers from layoffs.
Though districts are able to negotiate their own layoff plans, a recent Star Tribune analysis of locally negotiated contracts showed they rarely strayed from the seniority standard. If two teachers have equal seniority, those districts will use other factors ranging from extracurricular experience to college grade-point averages to Social Security numbers or even a coin flip to break a tie.
Between 2008 and 2013, nearly 2,200 Minnesota teachers were laid off for being less senior, according to a recent report by the Minnesota Department of Education. Under the GOP plan, school districts and the union would have to negotiate layoff procedures that also consider a teacher’s effectiveness, among other locally decided factors.
Education Minnesota and DFL lawmakers on Thursday warned that the proposed legislation would lead to costly litigation and that local costs are still unknown.
Denise Specht, president of the teachers union, in a statement criticized efforts to bring the bill to a vote “without waiting to know the cost to local districts. Why rush into this reckless vote before considering all the costs?”
She went on: “Changing the personnel policies of hundreds of districts to incorporate performance ratings and then training evaluators and teachers to use the new systems will cost taxpayers money, not to mention litigation expenses due to the poor construction of the bill itself.”
Moreover, DFLers argued that the bill is part of a larger trend to disparage teachers.
“This debate serves as one of the reasons teachers leave the profession,” said Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul.
Murphy, like other DFLers on Thursday, tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to include other goals, such as providing universal prekindergarten.
Similar legislation has yet to move in the Senate, where Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook, a former union negotiator, said the issue should be decided by school districts and unions. “I’ve never supported it. I still don’t support it,” Bakk said last week. “I’m very, very, very much not interested in getting in the middle of things that should be collectively bargained.”