Minnesotans generally reject the notion that seniority should be the sole factor in determining whether to retain teachers during layoffs. Polls taken during the past several years show that up to 80 percent of state residents agree that educator effectiveness should be considered in layoff and termination decisions.
Consistent with public opinion, earlier this month the Minnesota House approved a bill that wisely repeals the last in, first out (LIFO) state requirement when school districts are forced to reduce staff. The measure should pass.
Despite good reasons to change the law, Gov. Mark Dayton says he will veto the bill. He should reconsider. Dayton told the Star Tribune Editorial Board during an earlier legislative session that he would be more willing to support a LIFO repeal once a new teacher evaluation system was in place. That system is up and running now, and the antiquated LIFO provision should be dropped.
Under Minnesota's current teacher-tenure rules, schools must lay off educators based only on seniority — unless the individual school board and teachers union negotiate their own layoff policies. When LIFO is the only option, some school administrators find it impossible to retain talented, effective educators who are more recent hires.
Keep in mind that repealing LIFO would not and should not eliminate the consideration of seniority altogether. As in any other profession, experience matters. In education, time in the field is already recognized in step-and-lane salary schedules. If the state repeals the LIFO law, school districts would be free to negotiate alternatives to seniority, which would no longer be the default.
Opponents of repeal say it is unnecessary because about 40 percent of Minnesota districts already have agreed to limited deviations from seniority-only policies. But a Star Tribune analysis of state teacher contracts found that few districts with such agreements ever consider factors other than seniority. That's not the best way to make school staffing decisions that work best for students.
"As we work to craft policies that bring new and more diverse educators into our classrooms, it is essential that we empower our schools and teachers with the opportunity to explore alternative retention policies that better serve our students, teachers and schools," said Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, House Education Finance Committee chair and author of the bill.
Loon's comment speaks to one of the consequences of current law: It's more difficult to attract and retain new teachers if they know their positions will be first on the chopping block when budget cuts occur. A teacher of the year award winner and educators with much-needed new media and foreign language skills have lost positions in Minnesota because of seniority. Minnesota is one of only six states in which seniority-only is the law. Dayton and the Legislature should get the state off that list.