Minnesota teacher seniority bill: Senate opts for performance over tenure in layoffs

/ 27 February 2012 / jennifer

Megan Boldt, Pioneer Press, February 27, 2012 –

Basing teacher layoffs on performance rather than seniority is one step closer to reality.

The Minnesota Senate on Monday passed a bill that would end the practice of using experience as the deciding factor when schools let teachers go.

Senators approved the bill on a 36-26 vote. Only one DFL lawmaker, Sen. Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka, crossed party lines and voted for it.

Proponents say the change is necessary to eliminate Minnesota’s “last in, first out” layoff practices to make sure good teachers aren’t laid off just because they haven’t been in a district long enough. Minnesota is one of 11 states that has such policies.

“All seniority represents is the date and time the contract is signed. It does not represent the effectiveness of the teacher,” said Sen. Pam Wolf, R-Spring Lake, a teacher and sponsor of the bill. “And we owe it to our students to put the most effective teacher in the classroom.”

But opponents argue the bill is premature, linked to a new evaluation system for teachers that hasn’t been developed yet.

And some Democrats say the bill appears to be an attack on teacher unions, one more assault on a profession under constant public scrutiny.

“This is just another attack on collective bargaining rights,” said Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights.

Minnesota still is trying to work out the details of a new teacher evaluation law, which was passed by lawmakers last year and takes effect for the 2016-17 school year. Goodwin said it’s going to be an arduous task.

Some teachers have bigger class sizes, she said. Some have more immigrant students who can’t speak English. And, Goodwin wondered, how do you come up with a system that can judge a math teacher and a band instructor?

“I think the group is going to have a difficult time coming up with a fair system of evaluations,” Goodwin said.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said the bill ignores what will really improve schools – such as quality early childhood programs that are proved to boost student achievement.

And it ignores school budget woes, he said, the reason why teachers are laid off year after year.

“We’re arguing about who we’re going to lay off instead of questioning why we’re laying off teachers,” Marty said.

Wolf said the bill isn’t about addressing all that ails education – it’s about teacher layoffs and how Minnesota schools prioritize who is let go.

Union leaders might not like it, she said, but families do.

“I have not heard from any students who oppose this bill. I have not heard from any parents who oppose this bill,” Wolf said. “The only arguments against the bill are from (the statewide teachers union) Education Minnesota.”

Sen. Gen Olson, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee and a former teacher, said she’s tired of hearing that the lack of funding is to blame for problems in education. Money alone won’t solve them, the Minnetrista Republican said.

She commended districts, including St. Paul, that are proceeding with policies that take things beyond seniority, including licensure, into account when making layoff decisions.

Although Education Minnesota has argued that 40 percent of school districts already have negotiated agreements that allow layoffs to be based on factors other than seniority, Olson said most of those policies don’t go far enough.

“This is not against teachers….This is not against collective bargaining,” Olson said. “Teachers that are performing effectively, I don’t care how long they’ve been there, don’t have a thing to worry about.”

The bill allows probationary teachers to be spared from layoffs if they are deemed more effective than tenured colleagues.

The legislation will be sent to the House, which adopted a different version this month. A spokeswoman for House Republican leadership said a conference committee likely will resolve the differences.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has not said publicly whether he would sign such a bill. On Monday, Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, on Monday urged him to veto it.

“Dayton said in his State of the State speech that education shouldn’t be a political ploy,” Dooher said in a statement. “He’s absolutely right. We need our lawmakers focused on real solutions for real issues in Minnesota, not following the playbook of out-of-state groups.”

Megan Boldt can be reached at 651-228-5495. Follow her at twitter.com/meganboldt.