More than two-thirds of Minnesotans believe performance, not seniority, should be the deciding factor in determining which teachers keep their jobs when public schools conduct layoffs.
The Star Tribune Minnesota Poll, taken March 16-18, found that 68 percent of the state’s residents say layoffs should be based on a teacher’s performance, as measured by recently implemented state evaluation standards.
Support for performance over seniority was strong across the state, among all age groups, and across party lines.
Fewer than one in five Minnesotans agree that seniority should continue to be the primary factor in determining who loses their jobs, as currently dictated by state law and union contracts.
“Experience does come with teaching for a number of years, but I don’t think it should be the only factor in teachers being laid off,” said Janelle Kanz, 77, a retired educator and Winona resident. “Seniority is for the advantage of the teacher. Performance is for the advantage of the student.”
The poll of 625 Minnesotans comes at a time when teacher seniority rules have emerged as one of the more contentious issues at the Capitol this year. Minnesota is one of fewer than a dozen states where a teacher’s job security is determined largely by the date he or she was hired. GOP-sponsored legislation, recently approved in the House, would require school districts to revise layoff procedures that have been in place for decades.
Between 2008 and 2013, nearly 2,200 Minnesota teachers were laid off under the so-called “last in, first out” provision in state law, according to a recent analysis by the Minnesota Department of Education.
“None of us want to see teachers laid off but the reality is that … it’s something that happens enough that you want to make sure when it does happen, we’re keeping the absolute best teachers we can in the classroom,” said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.
No party divide
The Minnesota Poll found that 66 percent of self-identified Democrats and Independents supported layoffs based on performance, just 10 percentage points fewer than those who identified as Republican.
Among women, 73 percent voiced support for weighing performance over seniority, 10 percentage points higher than men. In Hennepin and Ramsey counties, almost two-thirds of residents said performance should trump seniority.
Senate Education Committee Chair Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, said the public may not be aware of a 2011 teacher evaluation law that he said was intended to improve teaching quality and foster collaboration among colleagues.
“The public may not realize that, and they need to,” Wiger said. “And they need to be more concerned about the alarming number of teachers leaving the profession or students that are no longer applying to colleges of education and deciding on another career.”
A spokesman for Gov. Mark Dayton, who vetoed a GOP attempt to change teacher tenure rules in 2012, noted the existence of bills in the House and Senate that would alter those layoff rules. “We’ll see what the legislative support is in both bodies,” said spokesman Matt Swenson.
A slight majority of Minnesotans, 51 percent, agreed that more experienced teachers are usually better than younger teachers. But about a quarter said experience does not matter much, and 17 percent indicated they were not sure.
John Pierson, 66, of Champlin, said he was unsure whether seniority or performance should guide teaching staff cuts but nonetheless said there’s value in retaining veteran teachers.
“Young teachers maybe have more enthusiasm, but experience means so much in doing a job like that,” said Pierson, a former mechanic and Teamster member. “Performance is nice, but I wouldn’t think seniority would be built up if their performance were so poor.”
Pierson characterized efforts to diminish seniority as part of broader national attempt to limit or eliminate the clout of unions.
“Unions have shrunk so much in this country,” Pierson said. “The Republicans want to move the way Wisconsin has gone, and I think that’s a huge mess.”
Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union with 70,000 members, has long argued against revising seniority-guided layoffs, saying the current system provides a stable framework for administrators and keeps the most experienced teachers in the classroom.
Union officials also say that the recently implemented teacher evaluation requirements should not be used to determine layoffs because they are new and untested. Moreover, Denise Specht, Education Minnesota president, said the new evaluation standards are the best tool to improve the quality of the state’s teaching workforce.
“The law encourages collaboration,” Specht said. “It provides support so that every teacher can improve every single year, and it also puts people on a clear path out of the classroom if they’re struggling, if they can’t improve or if they won’t improve. … Nobody has ever claimed that teacher layoffs, however you want to define them, will significantly improve teaching and learning.”
Jim Hoey, 62, Eagan, a retired teacher who taught secondary social studies for 34 years, was split in his view of whether performance or seniority should guide staff cuts.
“I think in general, in almost any field the more experience you have, it’s going to make you a better professional,” Hoey said. “If you have somebody with experience and a lot of breadth in their field, someone who’s still motivated and good with kids, you can’t replace that kind of experience.”
But, he added, “It’s too much of a generalization to say experienced people are better.”
Ricardo Lopez • 651-925-5044