Harrisburg turns sights on curbing teacher tenure

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It's not every day that a Los Angeles County judge seizes the attention of Harrisburg's political class, but Judge Rolf M. Treu did just that last week.

His ruling Tuesday in Vergara v. California found unconstitutional several of his state's laws regarding teachers employment, including one mandating that seniority be used when furloughing teachers -- a policy known as "last in, first out." Pennsylvania is one of 10 states with a similar law.

The ruling provided additional momentum for those efforts just days after the House Education Committee advanced a bill mandating that performance ratings, not seniority, determine furloughs. Now, legislators and advocacy groups are gearing up to push the bill over the top.

"We have been validated by this ruling that this is not anti-teacher. If anything, it allows the best and brightest teachers to be in the classroom," said committee chairman Paul Clymer, R-Bucks, who voted in favor of the bill.

"The Vergara case affirms that we are on the right side of history on this issue," said Jonathan Cetel, executive director of the Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now, a nonprofit group championing the bill.

For opponents of the proposed legislation, the ruling marked another step in an ominous trend.

"The last thing Pennsylvania ought to be doing right now is looking for ways to furlough more teachers," said Wythe Keever of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which opposes seniority changes and has accused Gov. Tom Corbett of substantially cutting education funding. "Economic furloughs are the wrong tool."

Judge Treu's 16-page opinion echoed many of the arguments that advocates of the Pennsylvania measure have made for years, particularly the argument that phenomenal but young teachers get sacrificed while ineffective old-timers stay in the classroom.

"No matter how gifted the junior teacher and no matter how grossly ineffective the senior teacher, the junior one, who all parties agree is creating a positive atmosphere for his/her students, is separated from them, and a senior grossly ineffective one who all parties agree is harming students entrusted to her/him is left in place," wrote the judge of California's Superior Court.

By abolishing such rules, "a lose-lose situation" becomes "a win-win situation," he wrote.

"Overall we look at ['last in, first out'] as something that just doesn't work," said John Callahan, senior director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. "It's simply a system that doesn't allow you to make rational decisions and decisions that help out students."

Teachers unions tend to oppose changes to seniority rules, arguing that such revisions are a ploy to fire more experienced, higher paid teachers and therefore cut costs at the expense of educational quality. In its current form, the bill expressly prohibits teachers' salaries from being considered in furlough decisions, mandating that those decisions be based on performance measures alone.

The bill allows furloughs for economic reasons, not just declines in enrollment or changes in programs as now is the case. The bill passed committee in a 16-8 vote, with two Democrats supporting it.

Rep. Erin Molchany, D-Allegheny, voted against the bill and said she will continue to oppose it until "we pass a fair funding formula and level the playing field for every Pennsylvania student."

"The cry has always been, 'Well, we need more money,' and no one is debating that," Mr. Clymer said. "The problem is we don't always have money to do that, and money is not always the answer."

"It is true that there is a lack of funding for education," said Mr. Callahan, of the school boards group, who supports the bill nonetheless. "Even if we did have adequate funding, this system would have to change."

Rep. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, a member of the House Education Committee and co-sponsor of the bill, said the measure is not meant to address funding but rather to protect high-quality teachers in the event that economic furloughs do occur.

Mr. Cetel, of PennCAN, said while additional public school funding is crucial, it needs to be coupled with the type of changes advanced in House bill, he said.

One Democrat who has pledged his support for the bill is Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, a former public school teacher who was elected to the Legislature in 2012.

"It protects great teachers and weeds out the bad ones," he said. "If I go to the doctor, I ask for the best doctor, not the doctor who has been there the longest."

Mr. Harris predicted many Democrats will vote in favor of the bill if it comes to the floor.

Funding is not the only concern being raised about the bill. The relative novelty of the teacher-evaluation system -- introduced for the 2013-14 school year, which rates teachers as "distinguished," "proficient," "needs improvement" or "failing" -- may not be ready to use for determining furloughs, some education experts say.

"The challenge right now is that this is still a new evaluation system," said Ron Cowell, president of the Harrisburg-based Education Policy and Leadership Center. Neither he nor the organization has taken a stance on the House bill.

"There are some complications with [the system], but we're working through it," said Mr. Callahan.

Mr. Cowell, who served in the Legislature for 24 years before taking the helm at EPLC, said that despite concerns about the evaluation system the bill has a far better chance of passage than similar bills in the past.

Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, a Pittsburgh community group dedicated to public education, is an ardent supporter of the bill and is optimistic about its fate, despite opposition about the performance evaluations.

"Quality matters," she said. "We can keep waiting for everything to be perfect to make change, but I don't think we'll see much change if we do that."

Matt Nussbaum: mnussbaum@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1504.


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