GOP pushes performance-based teacher furloughs in Pennsylvania

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HARRISBURG — Currently, state law allows teachers to be laid off only for reasons related to declines in student enrollment or changes in the organization of a school or district.

And when a school district does furlough teachers, it must choose who to let go only by seniority.

With the support of the Corbett administration, several House Republicans have proposed changes to the furlough rules. The House Education Committee on Tuesday heard testimony about proposals to add “economic reasons” as a cause to furlough teachers and to allow performance to be considered in selecting who loses their job.

The proposals build on a teacher evaluation system, new this school year, through which student performance counts for half of a teacher’s rating. Previously, teachers were assessed only through classroom observation.

The changes to furlough rules are opposed by teachers unions, while education reform groups have registered their support.

Carolyn Dumaresq, the acting education secretary, said in written testimony that the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett believes districts should be allowed to furlough for economic reasons and that furlough decisions should be based on teacher performance.

But Mike Crossey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, told the panel that the proposals confuse two distinct issues: how to balance school budgets and how to ensure students have effective teachers. Ineffective teachers should be helped to improve or removed before a budget crisis, while the state should provide schools with sufficient funding, he said.

“Instead of saying how can we get rid of people what we should be saying is what can we do to more adequately fund our schools,” he said.

Allowing administrators to consider factors other than seniority in determining furloughs would create an arbitrary process, he said in written testimony.

That point was disputed by George Parker, a former president of the Washington, D.C., teachers union who is now a senior fellow at StudentsFirst, the advocacy group founded by former Washington schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.

“Knowing who the best teachers are is not rocket science,” he told the panel.

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Linda Lane wrote in support of the proposal to allow districts to consider teacher performance in deciding furloughs.

A workforce reduction in the summer of 2012 forced the district to let go 16 of its most effective teachers, she wrote, though 12 have since returned. Meanwhile, 11 of 17 furloughed teachers who had been deemed failing were also recalled because of the seniority requirements.

“Furlough and recall policies based solely on seniority have taken highly effective educators away from students, and forced us to return ineffective teachers to classrooms,” Ms. Lane said in her letter.

Committee Chairman Paul Clymer, R-Bucks, said he expects a single proposal containing both the ability to furlough for economic reasons and the consideration of performance measures to be brought to a committee vote in January.

Karen Langley: or 1-717-787-2141.

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