Republicans look to governor on teacher layoffs

/ 26 March 2012 / jennifer

Megan Boldt, Pioneer Press, March 26, 2012 –

State lawmakers who want to end seniority-based teacher layoffs put Gov. Mark Dayton’s education chief on the hot seat Monday, March 26, on whether the Democrat’s administration had any appetite to negotiate an agreement this year on scrapping the “last in, first out” practice.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius in her first committee hearing on the issue reiterated her concerns that the bill – linked to a new teacher evaluation system that hasn’t been developed yet – is premature. Cassellius said she doesn’t want to take action on the issue this session but couldn’t speak for her boss about whether he’s open to further negotiations.

Her testimony led frustrated Republican sponsors of the bill to take a rare step, saying they will sidestep the commissioner on the issue and try to negotiate directly with the governor’s office.

“I’m not going to give up until the governor himself says there’s no room for more negotiations,” said Rep. Branden Petersen, R-Andover.

The measure, which would end the practice of laying off teachers based on seniority rather than performance, has passed the House and Senate, both led by Republican majorities. It is now in a conference committee to iron out the difference.

Dayton has indicated he might veto it, calling it an “election ploy,” but has yet to declare the bill dead upon arrival if it reaches his desk. He told the Pioneer Press last week that he still had concerns about the bill but never makes promises on whether he’ll sign or veto proposed legislation.

“It’s just a political talking point and reinforces their harsh views on education and teachers,” Dayton said.

Some polls show the general public backs doing away with “last in, first out.” But the statewide teachers union Education Minnesota is against it, arguing there is no proof that keeping veteran teachers lowers student performance – but having experienced instructors in the classroom does matter.

Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, said the measure is not as black or white politically like legislation pending to ban requiring employees to pay dues in union shops.

Jacobs said it’s conceivable Dayton might sign legislation to end seniority-based teacher layoffs, particularly given strained relationships between Education Minnesota and some fellow DFL legislators in the past couple of years.

“I don’t think it’s one of those issues that breaks very cleanly along party lines,” Jacobs said. “Dayton signing it wouldn’t be a political disaster for a Democrat like it would have been a couple decades ago.”

Cassellius told the conference committee that her biggest concern is that the bill is based on a teacher evaluation system that won’t be developed until 2014. A task force started working on it in December and is scheduled to finish its work at the end of this year.

Part of that system also includes a provision to base 35 percent of a teacher’s evaluation on student performance. Cassellius said she’s concerned about how Minnesota will measure that for teachers in non-tested areas such as physical education and music. Developing tests would be difficult and extremely expensive, Cassellius said.

She also said she worries such a system could discourage teachers from working in Minnesota’s neediest schools when they know the consequences are so stiff.

“Reform has to be strategic. It has to be deliberate. And timing matters,” she said.

But legislators peppered Cassellius with questions, including how can she defend keeping seniority-based layoffs when the state just agreed to improving teacher effectiveness and evaluations in its waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Cassellius said that’s being worked out as the evaluation process is developed. Administrators will be given authority to use information from those evaluations to make staffing decisions, including termination.

The education commissioner also said she believed that local school districts already had orderly, negotiated agreements that work for them. Cassellius acknowledged it can be hard for teachers to be removed from their positions, but it should be hard and a decision left up to local administrators.

“They’ve been in the classroom. They’ve seen those teachers. And they should have the authority to make those decisions,” Cassellius said.

Sen. Pam Wolf, R-Spring Lake, railed on Cassellius’s position, saying not taking a teacher’s performance into account is exactly why teachers are leaving the profession. Wolf is a teacher and sponsor of the bill.

“I would vehemently argue that it is not fair and it does not work. An orderly process does not make it a good process,” Wolf said. “If nobody cares about how effective I am, why do I want to be in this profession?”

Sen. Benjamin Kruse, R-Brooklyn Park, said he has heard a lot from Cassellius about how ending “last in, first out” would affect teachers. But he wondered if she has heard from parents, like many lawmakers have, who overwhelmingly want it gone.

Petersen said the only ones he has heard defend the status quo are Education Minnesota and Cassellius.

“I think that view is a very extreme minority viewpoint,” Petersen said. “We’re not going to sit on our hands and act as if this system works well.”

Megan Boldt can be reached at 651-228-5495. Follow her at