A bill to end the tenure system that protects older teachers and makes newer teachers the "last hired, first fired" was passed 36-26 by the Minnesota Senate on Monday, moving it a step closer to Gov. Mark Dayton's desk.

A similar bill has already passed the House. Once differences in the two bills are resolved, it will go to Dayton for his signature or veto.

Senate sponsor Pam Wolf, R-Spring Lake Park, herself a middle school teacher, said the change restores basic fairness.

"In the event of a layoff, teachers would be laid off based on their effectiveness," Wolf said, noting that under the current system, a teacher could have decades of experience but still end up first in line for layoffs by transfering to another school and losing seniority.

"Seniority does not mean experience. ... Experience does not necessarily mean effectiveness," she said.

Opponents say the legislation is an attack on unions and an attempt to strip teachers of what little job security they have.

"Basically, it guts tenure," said Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, who issued a grim warning that districts would likely follow the pattern of large corporations that lay off their most experienced and highest-paid employees and bring in young, inexperienced and lesser-paid hires instead. Under the proposed system, he said, "you can lay off a teacher with seniority just because you don't like them."

The Senate bill differs from the House version passed earlier this month by protecting new, probationary teachers from being automatically targeted for layoffs. It also includes a provision that prohibits districts from basing layoffs on financial grounds -- an attempt to stop schools from targeting teachers with the most seniority and the highest salaries at layoff time.

Those Senate changes were enough to persuade Dayton to ask for additional meetings with lawmakers before making a decision, but he has not hinted which way he'll go.

DFL Sen. Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka, who crossed party lines to support the bill, said the proposed evaluation system is no more an attack on the union than the current tenure-based system.

Some teachers wondered why, out of all the education priorities in the state, a worst-case scenario plan for budget crises is the one that made it all the way to a vote.

St. Paul teacher Kristi Schmitt teaches English language learners at the L'Etoile du Nord French Immersion School in St. Paul. She says she has no problem with the idea of teacher evaluations and accountability. Her issue with the legislation is that it deals only with teacher performance during budget cuts.

"I like the talk of teacher accountability. We want to be held accountable. We want to be recognized for the good work we're doing, but we like the idea of accountability," she said. "So why should we wait for budget cuts to address accountability? That accountability should be immediate and ongoing."

Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher called Monday's vote a wasted opportunity in a state where school districts already have the option of devising their own systems for dealing with layoffs -- and 40 percent have systems that are not based strictly on seniority.

"Instead of tackling the serious issues facing our schools, these bills will make it easier for school administrators to shed experienced teachers for their less-expensive colleagues," Dooher said in a statement. "These bills also confuse the layoff process with teacher effectiveness. Make no mistake, if there's a problem with a teacher, there's no reason for a principal to wait until a budget crisis to act."

Wolf said that hiring and firing based on tenure is unfair to students and good teachers. Despite teacher and union protests, she said, "I have not heard from any students who oppose this bill, I have not heard from any parents who oppose this bill. I have only heard from [the teacher union] Education Minnesota."

The legislation would rely on a teacher evaluation system that is still being worked out and which would not go into effect until 2016-17 school year -- the same year the legislation would take effect.

"This is very premature," said Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, who said she doubts anyone can create a system that fairly evaluates math teachers, band teachers, urban educators with classrooms of 40 and rural teachers with only a handful of students.

The House and Senate teacher tenure bills now must be reconciled by a conference committee. If the committee approves a compromise version, the bill will have to be approved by both bodies again before going to the governor.

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049

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