HARRISBURG -- Legislation that would allow schools to furlough teachers for economic reasons and to suspend teachers according to their performance evaluations cleared a House committee Wednesday.
Current law allows districts to lay off professional employees only for reasons related to declines in student enrollment or changes in the organization of a school or district.
And when schools do furlough teachers, state law requires the lost jobs to be selected according to seniority, so that the newest employee is the first to go. Under the bill headed to the House floor, teachers instead would be selected for furlough according to their performance rating.
Teachers rated "failing" would be the first chosen for furlough, followed by those rated "needs improvement," followed by those rated "proficient" and finally teachers labeled "distinguished." Seniority would guide how suspensions are allocated within a rating category.
"We need to give our school districts flexibility. That's what this bill is designed to do," said Rep. Tim Krieger, R-Westmoreland, who sponsored the proposal. "It is not designed to hurt teachers. I would argue that it helps good teachers. It helps students."
The proposal cleared the House Education Committee 16-8, with two Democrats joining Republicans in support. One of those Democrats was Rep. Jake Wheatley of the Hill District, who said seniority should not be the only factor deciding which teachers are let go.
Months ago, when the panel took testimony on the proposal, city schools superintendent Linda Lane wrote in support of considering performance in furlough decisions. She said a workforce reduction in the summer of 2012 forced the district to let go 16 of its most effective teachers, though 12 returned.
School districts statewide were required this year to put in place a new evaluation system for teachers. David Broderic, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, said the evaluations are an "untried, untested method" for use in furlough decisions.
He also argued that by allowing districts to suspend teachers because of tight budgets, legislators are "focusing on ways to cut more educators from our classrooms," rather than trying to reverse funding losses that led to the elimination of education jobs in Pennsylvania.
Rep. Steven Santarsiero of Bucks County -- who, like most Democrats, opposed the bill -- gave a similar reason.
"What we are doing here today is taking the first step of paying for cuts in education by increasing class sizes," he said. "And that, Mr. Chairman, is a bad, bad bargain for children of this commonwealth."
The bill is of interest to House Republican leaders, said spokesman Steve Miskin, and Gov. Tom Corbett also favors it.
"The administration supports this legislation, as it will provide local schools the flexibility to manage their staff and budgets to ensure that students are provided with a high-quality education," Tim Eller, spokesman for the Department of Education, said.
Karen Langley: firstname.lastname@example.org, 1-717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.