Ending teacher seniority rules beyond Philly requires legislative action

Part 80 of 80 in the series Educating America

CHANGES: A change in teacher seniority rules has to come from Harrisburg.

By Maura Pennington | Watchdog.org

PHILADELPHIA — The School District of Philadelphia has extraordinary power to suspend seniority rules.

But effective, young educators elsewhere in Pennsylvania aren’t so lucky.

The state public school code enforces seniority as the basis for classroom personnel decisions. Some lawmakers want to change that.

With the new Educator Effectiveness System, Pennsylvania is in a position to evaluate teachers based on performance and move away from the old “last in, first out” system

Rep. Tim Krieger, R-Westmoreland, introduced House Bill 1722 to reform teacher tenure and furlough decisions.

When a school faces declining enrollment or budget constraints, instead of issuing furloughs administrators cut entire programs, according to rules. That would change, as would rules involving seniority.

Regarding layoffs, the bill’s sponsors say there are better ways to ensure the best teachers stay in the classroom.

“If schools need to make personnel decisions and they are looking at furloughs, do it by effectiveness. Keep the best people in the classroom. Do what’s going to be best for the kids,” said Rep. Seth Grove, R-York.

Philadelphia’s superintendent, William Hite, announced recently the district would allow principals to make staffing decisions without using seniority as the primary consideration.

“We’re happy to see that happen, and I think it gives us something really great to take back to the legislators in Harrisburg to say that this is happening in Philly; we need to give the other 499 school districts the ability to do that,” said Ashley DeMauro, state director of StudentsFirst in Pennsylvania, which launched a campaign to raise public awareness on thet issue.

Philadelphia can waive the seniority rule because of the unique authority of the district’s School Reform Commission to suspend laws.

But for the rest of the state, broader legislative reform would be need. The administration, for now, seems to back that.

“The governor is supportive of retaining high quality teachers in the classroom in all schools across Pennsylvania,” said Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

Not surprisingly, the move away from seniority does not sit well with teachers’ unions.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association would not comment, but Michael Crossey union president, in December expressed worry that higher-earning veteran teachers would be laid off first to save the most on salaries.

Contact Maura Pennington at mpennington@watchdog.org and follow her on Twitter @whatsthefracas.