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Teacher-layoffs plan puts DFLers in a jam

DFL legislators are backed into an uncomfortable corner in debate over seniority’s role in layoffs.

Yesterday, the GOP-sponsored bill passed the state House of Representatives on a 68-61 vote.

There are rocks, and there are hard places. And lately, huddled between them in the antechambers and backrooms of the Capitol, are some 92 DFL lawmakers.

The rock: A vote in favor of a GOP-sponsored bill that would end the use of seniority as the chief criteria in layoffs would be seen as a betrayal of the DFL’s labor base, including the state’s largest teacher’s union, the powerful Education Minnesota.

The hard place: The growing bipartisan support for ending “last-in, first out,” or LIFO, among education policymakers, parents, DFL holders of other offices and even some rank-and-file, union card-holding teachers.

Adding to the minority caucus pain:  Poll results released earlier this week by the education advocacy group MinnCAN suggest that the issue is very much top-of-mind for voters, who favor an end to traditional tenure by a wide margin.

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Yesterday, the bill passed the state House of Representatives on a 68-61 vote, mostly along party lines. Its Senate counterpart was taken off the table Wednesday by Sen. Gen Olson, chair of the Education Committee, for fine tuning.

Olson doubtless has the votes to get the measure through the Senate, but significant DFL buy-in — a possibility — could help ensure Gov. Mark Dayton signs it.

In a statement urging Dayton to veto the legislation, Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher called the bill a political ploy.

“It’s disappointing the House has passed this bill, which does nothing to address the real challenges facing our schools,” Dooher said. “But it will make it easier for districts to shed seasoned teachers for their less-experienced, less-expensive colleagues. This is not about student learning, it’s about budget cutting.”

Seniority mandate

Although some districts have agreements with their unions that allow administrators staffing flexibility in certain circumstances, Minnesota is one of 11 states where, absent a local agreement to the contrary, the law mandates layoffs be done by seniority.

With research closely tying teacher effectiveness to student performance, in recent years education policymakers have sought the ability to take performance into account when teachers must be cut. Because of budget cuts and dwindling enrollment, over the last decade more than 2,000 Twin Cities teachers have lost their jobs.

As the job losses reach further into union seniority lists, principals and administrators — particularly those in schools struggling with large numbers of impoverished students — increasingly complain they are powerless to keep some of their top performers.

The bills before the Legislature would change that to make area of licensure the first consideration, followed by teachers’ performance data and then seniority.

Minneapolis Public Schools is currently enmeshed in an unpleasant, closed-door negotiation with its teachers union, which adamantly opposes a series of contract changes administrators and members of citizen observer groups say are crucial to gap-closing reforms. Chief among them: An end to the forced placement of “excessed” teachers no school will choose to hire in MPS’ 16 struggling “high-priority” schools.

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MPS administrators have been asking for flexibility in staffing schools for years, to little avail. In contract talks, school administrators act at the direction of elected board members. And as is the case in DFL elections throughout Minnesota, the Minneapolis union has tremendous influence in the party endorsing process.

Pressure is on at the state level, too. Following the last two sessions, Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul) has come under heavy union fire for sponsoring several education reform measures. He also faces an opponent this year for his theoretically secure seat.

Public opinion shifted

Still, the MinnCAN poll isn’t the first suggesting that if the DFL historically has been well positioned as standing with working Minnesotans, it’s now going to have to choose between being perceived as siding with labor or with disadvantaged kids.  

Three-fourths of those surveyed by MinnCAN said student progress should be the chief factor in determining teacher performance, and 91 percent said seniority should count, but performance should be the chief layoff criteria. The group has been meeting with individual lawmakers in recent weeks, sharing the data.

Before the House passage of the bill yesterday, a number of DFLers spoke against it but in favor of making it easier to get rid of bad teachers and keep good ones. Many agreed that seniority should no longer be the top criteria, but criticized the measure on the table as rushed.

An amendment floated in committee by Rep. Kory Kath, DFL-Owatonna, a high school teacher, would have prevented districts from making layoff decisions based on teachers’ salaries. Kath withdrew the amendment, but the issue is likely to resurface as the measure advances toward Dayton’s desk.

Details of how a teacher evaluation law passed in 2011 will be implemented are still unknown. Districts and unions are free to negotiate their own evaluation systems, provided they meet a series of parameters. Those that don’t, or choose not to tackle the intricacies involved themselves, must use a system being ironed out by a task force created during the 2011 session.

The law passed last year states that 35 percent of a teacher’s effectiveness must be pegged to student performance on tests that measure growth. The tests are thought to be a better, fairer gauge of teachers’ abilities because those working in struggling schools are not penalized if their students start out lagging behind.

Right now, it’s common for teachers who have graduated from probationary status to go decades between evaluations in many Minnesota school districts. An end to seniority-based layoffs could have a disparate impact on teachers who have had little meaningful feedback or coaching.

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Because the current tenure-change proposal would base layoff and firing decisions on three years’ performance data so as not to snare teachers who have a particularly bad class or rough year, the new law would not be effective until 2015.

Measure ‘misses the mark’

A member of the evaluation task force and president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, Mary Cathryn Ricker said the debate underway at the Legislature “misses the mark.” Layoffs should not be the impetus for removing bad teachers from classrooms, she said.

“The real work is in a year-long and career-long teacher-support and evaluation process,” she said. “We’re not waiting [in St. Paul] to make our teacher quality decisions until layoff time.”

Nor should lawmakers and families accept the inevitability of those layoffs, she added. “If people think they’ve won a big teacher-quality victory by ending layoffs based on experience, they’re wrong,” Ricker said. “Because we’re doing absolutely nothing to address the budget that’s forcing the layoffs.”

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