The Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill Wednesday that would alter a wide range of state policies related to public education — including the weakening of seniority protections for teachers.
The senators voted 35-15 for the omnibus school code bill, which was passed last week by the House of Representatives. Now it will go before Gov. Wolf, who says he has “serious concerns” about some of its provisions.
The legislation would allow school districts to cite economic distress as a reason for making teacher layoffs. Currently, state policy dictates that layoffs can only occur when enrollment dips, when specific academic programs are slashed, or when schools consolidate. School boards and administrators have felt hemmed in by these regulations, and they laud the added flexibility the bill allows.
Instead of eliminating an entire art, music, or full-day kindergarten program, they say, the new rule opens the door to, when needed, more careful trimming.
“It may allow you to reorganize the staff a little bit more efficiently and cover the courses and teaching assignments that you think would better meet the needs of the kids,” said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. “It does give districts a little bit more flexibility that way.”
When making layoffs, school districts traditionally abide by strict seniority rules, following a “last in, first out” policy.
This legislation compels districts to use the state’s teacher effectiveness rating system when making layoff decisions. Teachers with “unsatisfactory” ratings for two consecutive years would be let go first, followed consecutively by those with “needs improvement,” “proficient,” and finally “distinguished” ratings.
Pennsylvania’s teacher effectiveness rating system went into effect in the 2013-14 school year.
Each teacher's rating has four components:
- 50 percent classroom observation.
- 15 percent building-level standardized test data.
- 15 percent teacher-specific standardized test data.
- 20 percent elective data that the school determines.
If all ratings were equal, teacher seniority would continue to dictate layoff order.
“These are some of the accountability measures that our people want — and I think people in general want — in order to ensure that students are getting the most out of the dollars that we’re putting into schools,” said Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Republicans.
Most Republicans in the Senate voted to approve the school code. Three Democrats, including Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), joined them.
The state’s largest teachers' union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, opposed the move.
“That seems to be a very wrongheaded policy. We ought to be talking about how to improve teacher training and keep good teachers in the classroom rather than look for more expedited ways to get rid of them,” said PSEA spokesman Wythe Keever.
The General Assembly passed a bill to weaken teacher seniority with similar language in 2016, but it was vetoed by Wolf.
Then, as now, the bill says teacher compensation cannot be considered when making decisions and says districts seeking to downsize must also lay off an equal percentage of administrative staff, unless given a special waiver from the state.
The Wolf administration is being tight-lipped about what the governor will do next. When he vetoed the bill last year, he argued that districts already have the power to remove ineffective teachers from classrooms and said the state should not interfere with local staffing decisions based on a teacher evaluation metric that he believes is flawed.