Our viewpoint: Proposed changes in teacher layoff process have merit, need hard look

The Minnesota House of Representatives has passed a bill, authored by Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, calling for a major change in the way teacher layoffs are conducted when finances, enrollments or instructional program changes call for reduction of teaching positions. A companion bill authored by Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, has been laid over and may be considered at the end of the session. We encourage the Senate to join the House in considering the bill and favor teacher evaluation in layoff decisions.

Minnesota’s teacher layoff process is controlled by the principle of last in first out; the least senior teachers lose their jobs first. The proposed legislation requires performance in the criteria for layoffs. Seniority no longer serves as the only control; quality of teaching would be considered. This makes all too much sense. Why would you release a more competent teacher to keep the less competent teacher because they have been in the position longer?

We think the legislation has merit. But the proposal needs a great deal more thought.

The process of teacher performance evaluation must be well defined and free from arbitrary, capricious, malicious or pecuniary motivation. It can’t be so vague that it masks layoffs of the more senior teachers because they’re more expensive; or the layoff of politically active teachers because someone doesn’t like their politic; or the layoff of teachers who hold social or religious beliefs that don’t conform with the beliefs of a board, administrator or a church or political group. Vindictiveness over personal grudges can’t influence the evaluation. These are some of the reasons why teacher tenure was first put in place.

The teacher evaluation statute now in law relies heavily on peer evaluation or teacher-to-teacher evaluation. This provision is a major position of Education Minnesota, the teachers’ union. We think that position has merit. However, opponents of including evaluations in layoff decisions say the use of peer evaluations for teacher ratings and layoffs will lead to low morale and destroy teamwork. That’s a Catch 22. A quality peer-based evaluation system will recognize both adequate and inadequate improvement and great and poor teaching. Recognizing and acting on both can build morale and add to the self respect of every good teacher, and we have good teachers in our schools.

Retaining teachers who are not meeting standards and making progress is an error. Letting good teachers go and keeping those who aren’t making improvement is a serious affront to students.

The required resources for implementing the law need to be very specific and agreed to by the legislators before passing the bill into law. Teacher time for evaluation should be funded or it will be time taken away from students. Unfunded mandates and failure to acknowledge real costs has spelled the doom of many great legislative initiatives, especially in education. Invest the money if we want results. Why invest billions in the system and then go cheap on the evaluation?

Teacher layoff procedures are also a provision of negotiated contracts at the local district level. Successful implementation of a plan changing “last in first out” will involve those agreements. A successful law will have to take into consideration the time, procedures and legal implications for new contracts.

Some opponents to the inclusion of teacher evaluation in the layoff procedures may use the challenges of methods, systems and funding to delay or kill the bill. There are those who will ignore the real needs for finance and evaluation methods to make the bill work and simply hope for the best. Neither of these positions will benefit students.

Pass a bill that fully funds the needed elements for good systems of evaluation and includes specific schedules for using performance evaluation systems in layoff decisions. Adopt a date for compliance that acknowledges the current statutes for developing teacher evaluations and revisit the legislation each year to insure the original intent is adequately supported by legislative language and funding. Make adjustments but don’t abandon the intent.

Two important elements of political fallout must be acknowledged.

Passing the bill will be considered by some a defeat for unions and a victory for those who have a larger agenda of limiting the influence or destroying unions. If the bill fails, it will be considered a victory for unions and fuel the political battles. It will require quality leadership from both Republicans and Democrats to limit the political fallout and focus on improved learning for children by supporting quality teachers and rewarding quality teaching.

– An opinion from the ECM Publishers Editorial Board

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