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Last year the House Republican majority introduced wide-ranging and comprehensive proposals to overhaul the teaching profession and diminish the power of teachers unions to set education policy.

Petersen ed bill: LIFO must go

Republican Rep. Branden Petersen says his education bill is designed to support “the most effective teachers” regardless of seniority. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

House Republicans want layoff decisions tied to teacher evaluations,not seniority

Last year the House Republican majority introduced wide-ranging and comprehensive proposals to overhaul the teaching profession and diminish the power of teachers unions to set education policy.

When the dust settled on the 2011 special session, a number of new policies were signed into law. But Republicans and an assortment of business groups and conservative education reformers lamented the initiatives that failed.

This session Rep. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, has retrofitted his proposal to eliminate a state law stipulating that teachers with the lowest seniority get the first pink slips when districts do layoffs. The current arrangement is called “last in first out,” or LIFO, in education policy parlance.

Petersen, whose bill is up for a vote Thursday morning in the House Education Reform Committee, said that a young teacher whose students show high levels of academic achievement shouldn’t be cast out in a round of layoffs just because of low seniority.

“If we all know, and we all do know, that the most important in-school factor as it relates to a student’s success is their teacher,” Petersen said, “then we ought to try to flesh out who the most effective teachers are and who isn’t, to benefit the student ultimately.”

Seniority versus merit?

“Teacher effectiveness” has been one of the buzz phrases associated with the Republican majorities’ education policy agenda. Petersen and other key legislative players in the Republican ranks see the layoff provisions, which govern so-called unrequested leave of absence (ULA) situations, as addressing a broader qualitative issue in education policy.

Among the developments set in motion in 2011 was the creation of a new teacher evaluation system based partly on student achievement. Petersen has contended, over the objection of teachers unions, that seniority-based personnel decisions must become a thing of the past as the state grapples with its new system for evaluating teachers.

“There were remnants of existing law that remained in place — even after the evaluation law that was passed with the governor — that really were incompatible with the idea you were going to use evaluations to inform critical personnel decisions,” Petersen said.

He added that he has met with Gov. Mark Dayton to discuss the LIFO issue and is hoping he can build support at the Capitol by demonstrating that there is widespread public support for the change. The guiding principle behind his bill has been well-received by the Minnesota School Boards Association.

Kirk Schneidawind, a lobbyist for the school boards, said it’s possible for school districts and unions to negotiate layoffs that aren’t completely based on seniority. But in the absence of an agreement spelling out the terms, he noted, seniority is the only method for doing layoffs.

“We certainly support the concept of reviewing the current process of placing teachers on ULA,” he said.

Ed Minn continues to oppose

The change is opposed by teachers unions. Tom Dooher, president of the statewide teachers union Education Minnesota, said his union estimates that 40 percent of layoff situations are negotiated between the district and the local union. He advocates for seniority as the standard, arguing that experienced teachers bring the value of their years in the profession to the classroom.

“Experience does matter in every profession,” Dooher said. “Especially in teaching, you become more effective if you have professional development and training and you continue to work on your teaching craft. … What we see with some of these initiatives … is this is a way to cut budgets and say we’ll keep two less expensive teachers over the more experienced, more expensive teacher.”

The LIFO bill in Minnesota has drawn the interest of a national education reform group, Students First. The Sacramento, Calif.,-based group, which is led by former Washington, D.C., public schools chancellor and K-12 reform advocate Michelle Rhee, has hired a state director and sent field staff to the state to raise awareness about Petersen’s bill. It’s also active in the Capitol halls: Rhee has met with Minnesota legislators and said she’s encouraged by some of the bipartisan work on education policy that she’s seen.

“Last in, first out is a big one for us,” Rhee said, “because Minnesota is in a minority of states right now that mandates last in, first out happen … in state law.”

It remains to be seen whether a repeal of LIFO has the legs politically to make it to the top of Republican legislative leaders’ priorities in their dealings with the Dayton administration. Since the session was gaveled in on Jan. 24, Dayton has made clear that his priorities include passing a publicly subsidized stadium for the Minnesota Vikings and a large bonding bill to pay for construction projects.

House Education Finance Chairman Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, is optimistic that the LIFO bill will become part of the GOP’s Reform 2.0 agenda. He said another education issue that has a high profile is seeking a waiver from the federal government on the No Child Left Behind program.

“I think these would all be categorized under the Reform 2.0 package,” Garofalo said.

2011 bill required new evaluation system

LIFO is being pushed at a time when lawmakers and education advocates of all political stripes are embarking on an effort to reach an agreement on a new teacher evaluation system, as required by the 2011 omnibus education finance bill that passed at the end of the government shutdown.

Last year, GOP lawmakers and Education Minnesota tussled over the extent to which the evaluations should be based on measurements of student performance. While Petersen, Garofalo and others wanted 50 percent, the union and Dayton countered that student achievement doesn’t provide the complete picture of a teacher’s aptitude. In the end, it was agreed that the evaluations would be based 35 percent on student achievement, as measured by the local school district.

For local districts that don’t create their own measurements, a working group is now getting ready to sort out the contentious issues that surround measuring student achievement. Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, who serves on the group, said the participants need to reach agreement on the basics of the measuring student achievement before the evaluation system can be completed.

“Either way I think it’s going to be very helpful to hammer out a common understanding of what constitutes a meaningful measurement of student learning first and build an evaluation around that,” Ricker said. The work group will meet next on Feb. 23.

There’s a difference of opinion about whether the LIFO legislation clarifies or muddies the law in relation to teacher evaluations. Petersen contends that LIFO should be eliminated as a vestige of seniority-based teacher policy in an era in which teachers are being judged for effectiveness at any stage of their careers.
Dooher said he sees a “disconnect” between LIFO and the teacher evaluations.

“Let’s make sure that we have a statewide program for evaluation that works on quality, that is one of professional development for the teachers,” he said. “If there are dismissal problems, that can be handled already through state statute and through locals working with their school district to get rid of those people.”

When asked if LIFO should be reconsidered after the teacher evaluations are scheduled to be implemented in 2014, Dooher said time will tell.

“It’s a possibility,” Dooher said. “But let’s get that in place and see how it works. This is putting the cart before the horse. Let’s do it the right way and be thoughtful about it instead of anticipating that it’s not going to work and we’re going to get rid of something that already is working and has been working since the [public employee labor relations] law was passed in 1971.”

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