Teacher seniority debate returns to Legislature

Kindergarten students draw spiders.
Kindergarten students work on counting and drawing spiders in October 2014 inside Wayzata Central Middle School.
Bridget Bennett / MPR News

The debate over teacher seniority is returning to the Minnesota Legislature this session after a three-year absence.

Bills already introduced in the House and Senate would require school districts to emphasize performance over seniority in teacher staffing decisions. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and the statewide teachers union have fought off previous proposals. But supporters insist the change is needed to improve schools.

State Sen. Terri Bonoff
State Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, speaking at a Capitol press conference on Jan. 26, 2010.
MPR News / File

DFL Sen. Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka wants to do away with the layoff practice known as "last in, first out," which makes years of service the primary factor in determining who gets a pink slip. She is concerned that the current system puts too many young, talented teachers out of work.

Performance, Bonoff said, should be the first consideration in a layoff situation.

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Under the legislation, future layoff decisions would be linked to the new teacher evaluations that the state now requires annually in all school districts. Seniority would be de-emphasized in the recall or reassignment of laid-off teachers.

Bonoff's proposal is similar to a provision in a broader House Republican bill, and it puts her at odds with many in her own party. It also puts her at odds with the statewide teachers union, Education Minnesota, which has long opposed changes in seniority protections.

Denise Specht
Denise Specht took over as president of Education Minnesota on July 1, 2013.
Tim Post / MPR News

Education Minnesota's president, Denise Specht, said teachers want lawmakers to find solutions to bigger problems in education, such as student poverty and excessive testing, not the micromanagement of human resources.

"I haven't talked to Sen. Bonoff, and I believe that her intentions are really centered around making sure we improve quality," Specht said. "What I'm trying to figure out is how changing a layoff policy is going to make an educator better."

School districts can already negotiate local criteria for teacher layoffs. But districts without such agreements are limited to using seniority as a guide.

Republican Rep. Jenifer Loon of Eden Prairie, chair of the state House's education finance committee, said that's why she is pushing for the new performance requirement. Loon said she thinks there's broad public support for the change.

Jenifer Loon
State Rep. Jenifer Loon
Tom Scheck / MPR News

"If you ask parents what do they think should be the factors considered in evaluating which teachers should stay and which should go if you have to make those decisions, parents will tell you they want to know that you're keeping the most effective teachers, not just the teachers with the most seniority," she said.

Republicans passed a bill to eliminate "last in, first out" practices back in 2012, when they controlled both the House and Senate. Gov. Dayton vetoed the bill.

Dayton, who counts the teachers union among his political supporters, said last week that he's open to considering the issue this year. But he did not say that he supports it.

Governor Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

"I'm not advocating it, per se," Dayton said. "I think it's a very small part of what we need to do to improve public education in Minnesota. I think it becomes a lightning rod for Republicans who are anti-public schools and anti-public employees and are anti-unions. It's blown way out of proportion to its importance. But do we all want every teacher in Minnesota to be well qualified and serving the children well? Absolutely, yes."

Dayton said some school districts have already taken the initiative to change layoff policies and remove unqualified teachers. He said he wants to make sure that they retain that flexibility and local control.