No good reason to wait on reform of teacher layoff rules

/ 28 April 2012 / jennifer

Pioneer Press Editorial, April 28, 2012 –

Gov. Mark Dayton has an opportunity to advance one of Minnesota’s most important education reforms. He should sign into law the measure that would end the so-called “last in, first out” practice of laying off teachers based on seniority, rather than performance.

It’s time for this change: A recent poll by the Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now found that teacher-tenure reform has 90-plus-percent bipartisan support among Minnesotans. The Minnesota branch of the reform advocacy group Students First released similar results last week.

Under current law, teacher seniority is the sole consideration when layoffs are necessary, unless districts negotiate otherwise. The Pioneer Press reported earlier this year that Minnesota is one of only 11 states that require districts to use seniority as the deciding factor in layoff decisions.

The situation calls to mind what Chris Stewart of the African-American Leadership Forum and a former Minneapolis Board of Education member, and Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, wrote on these pages earlier this year:

“Minnesota’s 2009 Teacher of the Year almost never was.

“Following her first year of teaching, she was laid off from a school in Minneapolis. Fortunately, she stuck with teaching, found another job and eight years later was chosen from more than a hundred nominees to earn the award. …

“Minnesota’s 1990 Teacher of the Year won the award after __having been laid off a few months before. The reason, said the school principal: What happened was obvious. Last hired is the first fired.’”

The reform the Legislature worked up this year would consider teacher evaluations before seniority when layoffs are needed. Proponents argue that seniority-based layoffs hurt students by removing effective teachers. They also say that automatically letting the least-expensive teachers go forces more to lose their jobs when layoffs are necessary.

They maintain that the measure addresses a key to improving student performance: putting the best teachers in our classrooms. Teacher quality is essential to dealing with the achievement gap between white students and their peers of color. Experience matters, – but it’s not the only thing that matters.

The governor, who said he planned to veto the measure, bases his objection on concerns that a new teacher-evaluation system won’t be developed until 2014.

The rationale for delay is tough to support: Under today’s legislation, the reform would take effect no later than 2016-17, a window that seems sufficient. Legislators passed a new teacher evaluation law in 2011, and work continues on the details, including how much of the evaluation should be tied to student performance.

And school districts are preparing for reform wave. In St. Paul, the district’s new contract with its teachers opens its educator-driven evaluation program – available previously to those new to the district – to tenured teachers. The contract also exempts from seniority-based layoffs teachers in language immersion and other specialized programs.

We’ve maintained on these pages that it’s possible to both support our teachers and yet argue that performance, including a measure of student results, should be a component of evaluations and staffing decisions. There is nothing “anti-teacher” about finding a better way to ensure that the best teachers, regardless of seniority, end up teaching the coming generation.

“For Minnesotans, ending quality-blind teacher layoffs is not a partisan issue,” says MinnCAN Executive Director Vallay Varro. “We urge Gov. Dayton to act in accordance with the vast majority of Minnesotans who believe teacher performance should be the No. 1 factor in layoffs.”

In weighing in on education issues, we ask: What’s best for kids? This common-sense reform is in the best interests of Minnesota’s students. The governor should sign it.