House lawmakers approve teacher layoffs bill

Minnesota House Republicans have passed their top education policy bill of the session, but its prospects for becoming law appear dim.

Lawmakers voted 70 to 63 — largely along party lines — in favor of the measure, which makes changes in teacher seniority and licensing rules.

Under the bill backed by Republicans, school district officials would be required to negotiate local layoff policies that factor in teacher performance, rather than basing those decisions solely on years of service. It would end the practice known as "last in, first out" by the start of the 2017-18 school year.

Republican Rep. Jenifer Loon of Eden Prairie said parents want the best teachers in classrooms, not just the most senior teachers.

"I'm not asking to get rid of seniority. I'm simply asking that our districts negotiate a fuller, more thoughtful process for what would happen if a layoff occurs in your district, and one in which the interests of our students, doing what's best for our students, really is at the heart of that decision-making process," she said.

The bill also orders the Board of Teaching to speed up the process for out-of-state teachers to get licensed in Minnesota. Another provision makes it easier for school districts to hire non-licensed "community experts" for some openings, when licensed teachers are not available.

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But most of the debate focused on layoffs.

Republican Rep. Peggy Bennett of Albert Lea said the legislation makes sense. Bennett, a teacher, said she thinks her school colleagues will be comfortable with the layoff policy changes.

"This is not about picking on teachers," she said. "We have awesome teachers. I know many, many good teachers in my district and outside of my district. What this bill does is that in the unfortunate event of a layoff, it allows us to keep the best teachers."

Business groups, including the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, support the bill. The state teacher's union, Education Minnesota, opposes it, as do most Democrats in the state Legislature.

DFL Rep. Jim Davnie of Minneapolis, who is also a teacher, warned that the bill will result in unhealthy competition among educators.

"It turns that collaborative culture on its head and says look out for yourself, look out for number one and don't look out for your kids. Don't look out for the other students in your school by sharing and collaborating and working with your fellow staff," he said.

Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a similar teacher layoff bill in 2012. He said this week that he'll wait to see what develops with the legislation this session before making a judgment. Still, the Democratic governor said Republicans are focusing on the wrong education issue.

"Less than 2 percent of Minnesota teachers are laid off in the last five years, even during the recession and the cutbacks in funding," Dayton said. "Meanwhile, a third of the teachers leave the profession in less than five years. So, the real issue we have in terms of the quality of education for our kids is about recruiting and retaining good teachers."

Democrats in the Minnesota Senate are also resistant to the proposed seniority changes, even though DFL Sen. Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka is pushing a bill there. Bonoff said she'll get a committee hearing next week.

"Do I think that I've got the votes to get that bill off the Senate floor? No, I don't think I do," Bonoff said.

But even without Senate passage, Bonoff said the House action will keep the issue alive for end-of-session negotiations. She said she remains optimistic.

"I think that it won't be an easy path. But it is my belief that when we adjourn ... that this provision will be part of the final deal," Bonoff said.

DFL Sen. Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook said it's wrong for the Legislature to get involved in the collective bargaining process. Still, Bakk anticipates the full Senate will take a vote on the issue sometime this session, probably as a floor amendment to another bill.