Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow school administrators to base layoff decisions in part on teachers’ performance, as measured by the state’s new evaluation system.
“My goal is to protect our high-quality educators, regardless of seniority,” said state Rep. Ryan Aument, the bill’s co-sponsor. “Seniority should not be the primary way decisions are made.”
If the bill passes, Pennsylvania will join the 22 states requiring that seniority not be the only factor in teacher layoff decisions, and the 18 states that explicitly mandate teacher performance be considered, according to National Council on Teacher Quality.
“When a layoff comes in Pennsylvania now, it doesn’t matter how they’re doing. Good teachers who are knocking it out of the park can be laid off just like somebody who’s phoning it in,” said Nancy Waymack, managing director for district policy at NCTQ. “I think for those folks who are really knocking it out of the park who may be lower in seniority when the layoff comes up, they may be more likely to look around and see if there are other (career) options that are more secure.”
Pennsylvania law allows teachers to attain permanent status after three years on the job. Aument tried to amend the bill to make it five years and require that the two most recent evaluations showed the teacher at least “satisfactory” before being granted permanent status. Even though his amendment failed in committee, he said he plans to try again on the House floor.
The Association of American Educators doesn’t have a position on the Pennsylvania bill, said Alix Freeze, senior director of communications and advocacy for the group, but 78 percent of its members nationwide disagree with seniority-based layoffs in its 2014 membership poll.
The Pennsylvania State Educators Association opposes the bill, but its spokespeople didn’t return calls for comment.
Aument said his constituents—in particular, school administrators and school boards—have brought this issue to his attention.
“They’re seeking more flexibility to be able to manage their staff, either because of declining enrollment or declining budgets,” he said. “I think they should be able to do so in a way that they’re not forced to eliminate programs or eliminate teachers who have less seniority just because of the seniority provisions in our current law.”
Aument cited Vergara v. California, a lawsuit in which the judge recently overturned teacher-related statues, including seniority-based layoffs. In the case, student plaintiffs argued teacher job protections kept underperforming teachers in the classroom, at the expense of student learning.
“I think it certainly affirms the work we’re doing in Pennsylvania, and builds momentum,” he said. “I think our young people have a right—I’d argue, a constitutional right—to access to a quality educator in the classroom.”
Opponents of the bill have expressed concern the evaluation system may not give an accurate portrait of a teacher’s effectiveness. Some have argued increased funding for schools would decrease the need for layoffs.
Pennsylvania’s evaluation system, which will be fully in place next year, includes a variety of measures for teacher performance, which NCTQ considers a plus. Those measures include student growth data, measured in various ways, and classroom observations.
Classroom observations are “much more structured,” which helps mitigate the effects of principals’ like or dislike of the teacher being observed, said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.
Good teacher evaluations include data on student growth, classroom observations and student surveys, Waymack said. Ideally, multiple people would observe the classroom, and student surveys would be grade-level appropriate and ask questions that reveal the teacher’s performance and not whether the student likes the teacher.
Focusing solely on increasing funding to prevent layoffs is the wrong approach, Aument said.
“I think it’s important that those two issues really are separate issues. There are a number of reasons why districts might have to resize staff,” he said, noting budget issues and declining enrollment. “They’re two separate issues. In the unfortunate circumstance when they have to use a furlough, we want to make sure we’re protecting our high-quality educators.”