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Gov. Wolf to allow school code law that links teacher layoffs to evaluations

Natasha Lindstrom
| Friday, Nov. 3, 2017, 3:27 p.m.
Gov. Tom Wolf (AP Photo)
Gov. Tom Wolf (AP Photo)

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday that he will let a school code bill become law without his signature despite his concerns about how the legislation will change the way Pennsylvania schools handle teacher layoffs.

“Though there are components of the bill that he has concerns about, particularly Republican plans around teacher evaluation and termination, he will allow it to become law but withhold his signature,” Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said Friday afternoon.

Teacher unions statewide had urged Wolf, a pro-union Democrat, to veto the 75-page omnibus measure because of provisions that would give financially struggling school districts the power to furlough teachers based on performance evaluations as opposed to seniority.

Opponents to the change criticized lawmakers for linking teacher evaluations — and now, potential layoffs — to a flawed evaluation formula that relies too much on test scores and wasn't designed as a tool for determine which teachers to furlough.

Wythe Keever, spokesman for Pennsylvania State Education Association — the state's largest teachers union — maintained Friday that experience should be valued as an asset, not a liability.

“It's disappointing that the General Assembly forced this language into a school code bill that's key to implementing the state budget, because PSEA opposes any attempt to use factors other than experience in furlough decisions,” Keever said. “The governor's office made it clear that Gov. Wolf has concerns about these provisions, too.”

Keever conceded, however, that the changes are “significantly better than the far more draconian proposals we've seen in the past — proposals that Wolf vetoed.”

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis earlier this week voiced fears that school boards would manufacture economic crises to issue layoffs and increase class sizes. She could not be reached for comment Friday.

Proponents of the teacher layoff changes — including school administrators, business managers and The Commonwealth Foundation free market think tank — argued that districts needed more flexibility over layoff decisions.

“Our kids can now keep their best teachers, and valuable programs like art and music can be saved,” state Rep. Stephen Bloom, a Cumberland County Republican advocating for what he had called the “Protecting Excellent Teachers Act.” “This long overdue reform will ensure that our best teachers will remain in our classrooms, regardless of seniority.”

End to ‘last in, first out'

No longer will district officials operate strictly on a so-called “last in, first out” policy, which means the length of a teacher's tenure takes precedent when deciding whom to lay off first.

Previously, districts weren't allowed layoffs for financial reasons and were limited to using the option because of declining enrollment, consolidation of schools or scaling back of programs.

Under Pennsylvania's amended school code, districts may furlough teachers during times of economic hardship based on annual performance evaluations — about 15 percent of which are based on student test scores.

Teachers would be divided into four groups based on their evaluations. Seniority would be a deciding factor for teachers with similar performance scores.

“It at least preserves experience in the classroom as key part of any furlough decisions going forward,” Keever said.

The legislation explicitly prohibits targeting specific teachers for layoffs and laying off teachers based on how much money they make.

The broader school code bill also makes 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.

“Gov. Wolf believes components of this bill are important: delaying the Keystone Exams, expanding opioid education in schools, curbing ‘lunch shaming' and providing additional funding to help distressed school districts,” Abbott said.

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

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