By Steve Gunn
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – A local school board in Minnesota approved a new teachers union contract last week, but members were not happy about it.
They weren’t particularly upset about the usual dollars and cents issues. But they were clearly angry about the lack of new contract language that would have allowed the district to do away with the outdated “last in, first out” layoff rule for teachers.
“Our proposals in that regard were characterized as anti-teacher, and that’s simply not the case,” Mark Spurr, chair of the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagen school board told MendotaHeightsPatch.com last week. “I’m sorely disappointed that we did not make progress and this is an issue that’s not going away.”
For years, teachers unions across the nation have insisted on using seniority as the sole criteria for filling open positions and determining layoffs. That’s because unions are designed to protect the job security and incomes of their more senior members, often at the expense of the unlucky newcomers.
But that philosophy doesn’t work well for those who believe student needs should come first. They realize that teacher effectiveness sometimes has little to do with experience.
Older teachers can become bored and complacent, particularly when protected by tenure laws. Younger teachers tend to have a great deal of enthusiasm that plays well in the classroom, but little protection at layoff time.
Across the nation, lawmakers, school board members and citizens are demanding changes that will base layoffs at least partially on teacher evaluations. They say it’s particularly important to dump the “last in, first out” rule in the current recession, when teacher layoffs are common.
The Minnesota state legislature recently passed legislation that would end “last in, first out” throughout the state. The Pittsburgh school board recently passed a resolution directing the superintendent to approach the teachers union about dumping the seniority policy. And a citizens group in Massachusetts has apparently gathered enough signatures to put the issue on the statewide ballot in November.
The Massachusetts effort may have the best chance of success, because voters may have the say. Several polls have indicated that a clear majority of Massachusetts residents think teacher evaluations, rather than seniority, should be the criteria for layoffs.
In other cases, where the union or its supporters will have a voice in the outcome, the seniority clause is more likely to survive, even it if means putting less-than-qualified teachers back in the classroom just because they’ve been around a long time.
Unions and supporters may kill some proposals
After months of heated statewide debate, the Minnesota state Senate approved a tenure reform bill Saturday that would end “last in, first out” by a 35-28 vote. The action followed similar approval by the state House a few nights earlier.
But the effort appears doomed, because Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton is siding with the unions and has pledged a veto within the next few days.
In a recent editorial, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune urged the governor to reconsider his stance. The editorial pointed to polls showing 80 percent support for the legislation.
The editorial points out that the unions oppose the bill because a new statewide teacher evaluation system is not yet in place.
“That’s an insultingly weak argument,” the editorial said. “The tenure law change would go into effect in the 2016-17 school year, allowing plenty of time for the new evaluation system to be in place.”
In Pittsburgh, school board members probably realize they are taking a shot in the dark by asking the union to dump “last in, first out” in a non-contract year, but they voted to move forward and have Superintendent Linda Lane approach the union, anyway.
Every school district in Pennsylvania with a labor contract currently embraces “last in, first out,” and no union in the state has ever agreed to abandon the policy. But the Pittsburgh district is expected to lay off hundreds of teachers next year, and board members are concerned about the quality of instructors who will remain on the job.
Board members are particularly worried about what they characterize as the most “vulnerable” schools in the district. That list includes Pittsburgh Faison PreK-5, which was once a failing school that was closed by the district, then reopened as a reform school with a handpicked staff.
The problem is that roughly 40 percent of the school’s teachers have less than four years worth of experience, and many would likely lose their jobs in the coming cycle of layoffs if the policy remains unchanged.
“The proposal is to get a dedicated team of people who choose to be in tough places and allow those teams to flourish,” school board member Sharene Shealey told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
But it doesn’t look like the union will budge. In fact, the union president seemed offended that the school board passed a resolution to end “last in, first out.”
“No one union or no teachers have worked harder to work in collaboration with the district to move our students forward,” Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, was quoted as saying. “So it was very disappointing for me that the board of education would choose to make such a public display this evening.”
As if the school board was somehow wrong to discuss the topic of teacher quality.
Voters may have the last word in Massachusetts
The situation appears more promising in Massachusetts, where that state’s branch of the national organization “Stand for Children” has gathered the signatures of the necessary 3 percent of voters to put the “last in, first out” question on the ballot.
Advocates of the proposal say “last in, first out” hurts academically-challenged urban schools the most. They note that 75 percent of those districts have the seniority clauses in teacher contracts, while only 40 percent of suburban districts base layoffs strictly on seniority.
In other words, the schools that need excellent teachers the most are more likely to lay them off.
“Stand for Children Massachusetts” officials believe the proposal would have a great chance of passing, citing recent polls that showed 85 percent public approval.
Now the issue will go before the state legislature, which will have the option of passing it and putting it on the ballot, amending it and putting it on the ballot, or vetoing it. One published analysis said the legislature, despite being under control of pro-union Democrats, may choose to let voters tackle the volatile issue.
If lawmakers did veto the proposal, supporters could force it onto the ballot by obtaining signatures from one-half of one percent of the voters.
At that point, the only thing that could stop the proposal from being on the ballot is a lawsuit filed by the unions.
We have no doubt they would go that route, rather than let the people have the final say. We’ve learned many times that Big Labor will stop at nothing to get its way, even if children are the losers in the equation.