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Pennsylvania teachers unions urge veto of bill that would weaken seniority

Natasha Lindstrom
| Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017, 6:21 p.m.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf did not indicate Wednesday whether he would sign or veto an omnibus school code bill over a controversial provision regarding teacher layoff rules.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf did not indicate Wednesday whether he would sign or veto an omnibus school code bill over a controversial provision regarding teacher layoff rules.

Teachers unions statewide are urging Gov. Tom Wolf to veto an omnibus school code bill over a controversial provision that could strip teachers with subpar performance ratings of their job security — no matter how long they've been teaching.

The proposed Pennsylvania School Code awaiting action on Wolf's desk contains a provision that would give financially struggling school districts the power to lay off teachers based on evaluations as opposed to seniority.

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis said Wednesday that she fears the proposed changes would spur school boards statewide to increase class sizes and further exacerbate teacher shortages.

“I worry that districts would manufacture an economic crisis to lay off highly effective teachers, and we know that experience matters in teaching, like it does in a lot of fields,” Esposito-Visgitis said. “We don't want a revolving door of less-experienced teachers.”

Wolf considers response

Wolf, a pro-union Democrat, gave no indication Wednesday whether he would sign or veto the school code bill.

A Wolf spokesman told the Trib last week that the governor had “some serious concerns” with the proposal. Wolf vetoed a stand-alone bill calling for similar changes in May.

Proponents of the teacher layoff changes — including school administrators, business managers and right-leaning think tanks — argue that districts should have more flexibility over layoff decisions, particularly in times of financial crisis.

Pennsylvania is among “a handful of states” that prohibits using performance ratings in layoff decisions, and the proposed school code “would end this outdated system,” Jonathan Reginella of The Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank in Harrisburg, argued Wednesday in a policy briefing.

“Every child deserves to learn from an excellent teacher,” Reginella said. “And no excellent teacher deserves to lose his or her job because they were hired at a later date.”

The state's largest teachers union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, maintains that the proposal “does nothing for Pennsylvania's students, and it hurts the teaching profession.”

“Experience in the classroom is an asset, not a liability,” PSEA spokesman Wythe Keever said.

How furloughs would work

Currently, district officials operate on a so-called “last in, first out” policy, known as LIFO, which means the length of a teacher's tenure takes precedent when deciding whom to lay off first.

Districts aren't allowed layoffs for financial reasons and are limited to using the option because of declining enrollment, consolidation of schools or scaling back of programs.

House Bill 178 would allow districts to furlough teachers during times of economic hardship based on annual performance evaluations.

Seniority would be a deciding factor if two teachers were to earn the same performance scores.

The bill's language explicitly prohibits targeting specific teachers for layoffs and laying off teachers based on how much money they make.

“PSEA still opposes any bill that uses factors other than seniority to determine furlough order,” Keever said. “Instead of addressing a looming teacher shortage and putting more teachers in the classroom, this bill would let school districts fire more of them, using an untested evaluation system that relies heavily on standardized tests that were never designed to be used this way.”

About 15 percent of teacher evaluations are tied to student test scores. Union officials argue that as designed, Pennsylvania's evaluations do not take enough factors into account to be fair and effective.

“I hope Gov. Wolf has heard loud and clear the inequities about the teacher evaluation program,” Esposito-Visgitis said.

“Some people say the union keeps bad teachers — that is preposterous,” she said. “If there are teachers that shouldn't be there, there is a pathway to help lead them into another field, but you should be doing it with respect and support.”

The 75-page bill would make changes on several other education policy fronts — including mandating that schools teach children about opioid abuse, banning the shaming of students with unpaid lunch debts and delaying the Keystone high school exit exam from becoming a graduation requirement until at least 2020.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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