Proponents of basing teacher layoffs on performance rather than seniority got a big victory Thursday, with the Republican-led Minnesota House passing a bill that would end the practice of using experience as the deciding factor when schools have to let teachers go.
Despite criticism from opponents that the legislation was moving too fast and had potential legal land mines that haven't been addressed, lawmakers passed the bill on a 68-61 vote along mostly party lines.
Minnesota is one of 11 states that have so-called "last in, first out" layoff practices on the books. Proponents argue that hurts student achievement because they lose effective teachers and it forces more teachers to lose their jobs because districts have to let go of their least expensive teachers.
"We don't have to be quality blind when we lay people off," said House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood. "We need to do better."
Democrats say they agree that Minnesota's system of seniority-based layoffs is outdated and needs to be changed to base those decisions on performance. But there are too many issues that haven't been addressed, and it's linked to an evaluation system for teachers that won't be developed for another two years, they say.
Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, said letting go of teachers based on evaluations that could be up to three years old and is private data under state law is a recipe for an explosion of lawsuits. If a teacher is laid off, he said, they have no
ability to determine why they were let go because of those privacy laws.
"I have no ability to find that out. That's going to bring me into the courtroom. That's going to bring in the lawyers," Davnie said.
Rep. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, sponsored the bill and said it has been thoroughly vetted through more than five hours of testimony and debate in committee hearings and talks outside of committee. And he said he's open to ideas and suggestions as the bill moves on, but that it's necessary to forge ahead to make sure Minnesota school leaders have the ability to keep the best teachers.
"It puts teacher performance at the heart of that decision," Petersen said.
Getting rid of "last in, first out" may have traction in the Republican-led House. But GOP Sen. Gen Olson, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, has taken the bill off the table to work out some of the concerns people have with it.
It's unclear whether DFL Gov. Mark Dayton would sign a bill that would eliminate seniority-based hiring practices. He hasn't commented publicly on the issue.
Effective teachers are the biggest in-school factor that affects student achievement - second only to family environment, which plays a much bigger role. But as opponents point out, there is little research to back up claims that seniority-based layoffs keep more ineffective teachers in the classroom and let go a larger number of higher-performing instructors.
One study from Washington state did find that more teachers with less experience but better student results were being cut than experienced teachers who weren't performing as well.
The study by Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington-Bothell, and Roddy Theobald, a researcher at the Center for Education Data and Research, is still going through peer review. And that part of the analysis was limited to teachers who could be linked to their students' performance on state exams in math and reading.
Only about one-third of Minnesota's teachers could be evaluated by such measures.
But there is research that comprehensive evaluations using a variety of measures to judge teacher performance can sort out ineffective teachers and give them the help they need to improve. Union representatives argue that's a better route, and if teachers don't improve, they can be removed. The bill, they say, is just an attempt to get rid of due process rights for teachers.
Tom Dooher, president of the statewide teachers union Education Minnesota, said getting rid of seniority-based layoffs won't do anything to address the real problems in education like repaying the billions of dollars the state borrowed from schools by delaying aid payments.
"But it will make it easier for districts to shed seasoned teachers for their less-experienced, less-expensive colleagues," Dooher said. "This is not about student learning, it's about budget cutting."
But there are still a growing number of parents and community members across Minnesota calling for changes in seniority and tenure rules for teachers. Groups like the Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now and StudentsFirst, an advocacy group created by former Washington, D.C., public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee that focuses on issues such as school choice and accountability, have mobilized thousands in the state around making changes to education, including ending seniority-based teacher layoffs.