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Pa. Governor Vetoes Bill to Limit Seniority Protections During Teacher Layoffs

By guest blogger Madeline Will (@madeline_will)

A Pennsylvania bill that would have limited the use of seniority during teacher layoffs has been vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, sparking a statewide debate on evaluations and "last in, first out" policies.

Current state law requires school districts to begin layoffs with the newest teachers, which critics say allows veteran teachers to keep their jobs at the expense of potentially more effective but less-experienced teachers. The Republican-backed bill, titled "Protecting Excellent Teachers," would have allowed school boards to base layoffs instead on performance on a statewide teacher-evaluation system that passed in 2012. 

Right now, school districts in Pennsylvania cannot lay off teachers for economic reasons. Instead, according to the Allentown Morning Call, schools come up with other reasons, like a drop in student enrollment, a school consolidation or closure, or a program reduction or elimination. The bill would have changed this, allowing school boards to lay off teachers because of budget cuts. 

The legislation would have also made the tenure process a bit longer, extending it from three to four years.

The bill was supported by the state School Boards Association, and was opposed by the teachers' unions.

In a statement announcing his veto, Wolf said "high-stake test scores" should not be used as the benchmark for teacher quality, and the bill relies too heavily on that single score. 

"I am committed to greater accountability in our schools, but we should be working together to create a wide-ranging system that focuses on real, proven strategies to prepare our students and measure teacher effectiveness," he said. "I believe this bill does not address the broader issues at play with our evaluation and testing systems." 

To be clear, the bill itself doesn't specify test scores, but considers the overall performance rating from the teacher's most recent end-of-year performance rating. (Teachers who get an overall performance rating of "failing" are suspended first, teachers who receive an overall rating "needs improvement" are suspended second, and seniority is the tie breaker.) 

The backlash to his veto was swift. In a statement, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association called the bill "common sense local reform" and said school districts "need the flexibility to make furlough decisions by taking into account performance without arbitrary restrictions, such as the use of seniority, that accompany current law." 

State Rep. Stephen Bloom, the bill author and a Republican, said in a statement that Wolf's veto "preserves the bad laws that too often force our best educators out of our kid's [sic] classrooms." 

Under Pennsylvania law, the state legislature can override a veto with a two-thirds vote. According to the Morning Call, GOP leaders in the state legislature have threatened to withhold the extra education money Wolf has requested for the 2016-17 fiscal year if he vetoed the bill.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association praised the veto, saying that the bill would have allowed school districts to base furlough decisions on the "untested and unreliable results" of the new evaluation system. The system, the association stated, relies too heavily on standardized test results.

"Legislators need to focus on funding our schools, instead of trying to punish teachers for years of hard work and well-earned experience in the classroom," said Jerry Oleksiak, PSEA president.

The Vergara v. California case that is currently heading to the California Supreme Court touches on these same issues of teacher job protections. In April, a California appeals court found that the state's job-protection laws for teachers — which are similar to Pennsylvania in that teacher layoffs are based more on seniority than evaluations — do not violate the state constitution's equal protection guarantee by lumping the ineffective teachers in high-poverty schools. Still, the judges acknowledged, the laws may lead to the employment and retention of more bad teachers. 

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