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Court: State Need Not Credit Out-of-State Teaching Experience

A state does not violate the U.S. Constitution when it refuses to give a teacher the same credit for out-of-state teaching experience as it gives to those who worked their way up the pay scale within the state, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The case was brought by Patrick Connelly, who was hired as a 6th grade teacher in the fall of 2006 by the Steel County school district in Pennsylvania. Connelly had nine years of teaching experience in Maryland, for which he sought credit on the Pennsylvania teacher pay scale. The district gave teachers hired from other Pennsylvania districts at least partial credit for each year of experience, but it gave Connelly credit for just one year because his experience was out of state.

Connelly contends in court papers that he initially received about $11,000 less in annual salary because of the district's decision, and that by the 2010-11 school year he was making about $22,000 less than he would have had he received full credit for his out-of-state experience.

Connelly sued the Steel Valley district in 2011, claiming that the disparate treatment violated the right to interstate travel under the privileges and immunities clause in Article IV of the Constitution, as well as the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause.

A federal district court dismissed his suit last year, and in a Jan. 24 decision in Connelly v. Steel City School District, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, unanimously ruled against him as well.

The court panel noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the right to travel as a fundamental right, and has struck down certain forms of disparate treatment of newcomers versus longer-term residents, such as lengthy duration-of-residency requirements to vote or receive welfare benefits in a new state.

The 3rd Circuit court panel said the Steel Valley district's policy is based on the location of teaching experience, not duration of residency. A Pennsylvania resident who taught out-of-state for nine years would be treated no differently than Connelly, the court said.

The court thus analyzed the district's policy under a rational-basis test rather than strict scrutiny.

"Steel Valley's experience-based salary classification is sufficiently tied to the legitimate state purpose of promoting an efficient and effective public school system to pass the rational basis test," the court said. "Accordingly, we hold that Steel Valley did not violate Connelly's right to travel."

A school district may rationally place a premium on teachers who have more experience working within the Pennsylvania school system because they will be more familiar with the values, regulations, and requirements of the state's education system, the court said.

"Beyond familiarity with the regulations, it is also reasonable to assume that teachers with more experience working within the system would have a better grasp on what methods are most successful in achieving the goals the [state education department] has established," the court said.

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