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Proposal Would Base Teacher Furloughs On Performance, Not Seniority

Flickr user Brad Wilson

The last time Pittsburgh Public Schools furloughed a substantial portion of its teachers was in 2012, when 190 teachers got pink slips. Those layoffs were based on area of certification and seniority, as is required by the district’s contract with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

House Bill 805, which is now in the Pennsylvania Senate would end that practice, instead basing layoffs on performance.

Prime sponsor Rep. Stephen Bloom (R-Cumberland) said his bill would make the process of deciding which teachers get cut in tight economic times fairer.

“When I actually talk to everyday teachers who are in the classroom, they actually support it,” Bloom said. “They want to see that their best colleagues are protected, and they want to make sure that when they’re doing a great job, they’re protected, and they’re not going to be subjected to blind layoffs based on inverse seniority.”

Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) said school districts in his area, such as Seneca Valley School District, are in favor of the change. He said it makes simple economic sense to end the practice of seniority-based layoffs.

“If somebody’s performing, keep them employed,” Metcalfe said. “If somebody’s not performing and you have to reduce the size of your workforce, then those individuals should certainly be the first to go.”

But opponents of the measure say the metric by which Bloom proposes to make furlough decisions is flawed.

Ted Kirsch, president of the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania, said the performance evaluation system adopted by the state in 2012 takes into account factors that teachers can’t control, such as standardized test scores. For example, said Kirsch, if a student had an incompetent teacher in third grade, she might score poorly on her fourth grade standardized tests. He said the current evaluation system would penalize that fourth grade teacher.

“And of course then the other aspect — and you have to have been in a school situation to understand— (is) favoritism,” said Kirsch, who began his teaching career in the School District of Philadelphia in 1960. “I like one person over another person. It’s not being done fairly and objectively.”

Rep. Dan Miller (D-Allegheny) who voted against the bill, said some of the evaluation factors are more strongly related to the individual circumstances of students—like poverty or participation or learning difficulties—than the competency of teachers.

Miller said basing furloughs on such a performance metric could actually discourage teachers from working with the most vulnerable students in the most challenging districts.

Furthermore, said Miller, the state is not suffering from an excess of teachers, and the question of how to best to go about laying off teachers should not be a top priority for legislators.

“We are spending too much time worrying about more economic furlough issues and I’d love to get into real discussions about how we can prepare curriculum assistance (and) other things … that would assure that our kids our graduating high school and getting ready for the workforce that is waiting for them,” Miller said.

Kirsch echoed that sentiment, saying lawmakers should instead focus on boosting school funding.

“If we can get this shale tax … passed and the schools are funded properly, it’s a non-issue,” Kirsch said. “We won’t have to have layoffs because we can properly fund the public schools in Pennsylvania.”

The bill passed the House in June and is now in the Senate Education committee. A similar measure, Senate Bill 5, was introduced by Sen. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster) and is in the same Senate committee.