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Proposed economic furloughs could slay sacred cow of seniority in Pennsylvania schools

By   /   December 4, 2013  /   No Comments

Stark financial reality has sparked debate in Pennsylvania over teacher seniority.

SHATTERED: Stark financial reality has sparked debate in Pennsylvania over teacher seniority.

By Maura Pennington | Watchdog.org

PHILADELPHIA – Economic reality for Pennsylvania school districts may slaughter the sacred cow of teacher seniority.

Rather than lose young, qualified educators simply because they were the last ones in the door, three state representatives have authored legislation to give school districts flexibility in furloughing personnel due to budget constraints.

The proposed elimination of seniority as the sole basis for the decision to suspend employees has met opposition from the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. However, the necessity to make furloughs based on fiscal reality has caused lawmakers and school board officials to consider teacher effectiveness to be a fairer standard than seniority alone.

Gov. Tom Corbett also supports the move away from seniority, according to Carolyn Dumaresq, the state secretary of education.

“If we are truly committed to graduating students who are college and workforce ready, then we need to ensure that we have a strong teaching staff—teachers whose performance reflects a focus on student achievement,” Dumaresq said Tuesday in her testimony at a hearing before the House Education Committee.

The administration and other advocates for the change see the furlough issue connected to the statewide teacher evaluation system that was created in 2011. Now that teachers can be graded on their performance, school administrators can make personnel decisions more closely aligned with student need.

Yet the PSEA says districts will target veteran teachers for furloughs because those educators command higher pay and more expensive benefits.

“I think districts are going to lay off the most senior teachers because it saves the most money,” Michael Crossey, president of the PSEA, told the committee.

Crossey argued the real problem is insufficient education funding. Instead of asking how we can cut better, leaders should ask how to invest better, he said.

“If there’s an issue of effectiveness, it shouldn’t be economics that determines that,” he insisted.

It could be too late in Pennsylvania to uncouple the issues of teacher retention and finances, despite intentions to be objective. The state spends about $13,000 per student each year, though its educational outcomes are below average and it faces millions in unfunded pension liabilities for public school employees.

Eric Eshbach, superintendent of York County School District, said in the hearing that he cannot legally furlough the number of employees he would need to find the funds to meet the next pension increase.

“Our system is totally chaotic and broken,” said Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Allegheny, one of the few Democrats to engage actively in the discussion of economic furloughs, having seen what happened in Pittsburgh last year when layoffs based on seniority cut loose competent teachers.

According to the Pennsylvania School Board Association says an estimated 63 percent of a school district’s budget goes to employee salary and benefits. As it stands now, districts facing declining tax revenue and rising costs must cut programming rather than suspend individual teachers.

When asked what kind of results the switch from educator seniority to effectiveness would have on the financially troubled School District of Philadelphia, spokesman Fernando Gallard replied, “We are in the process of analyzing the proposals and their possible impact on the SDP therefore we are unable to comment any further at this point.”

Contact Maura Pennington at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @whatsthefracas.

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Eric Boehm is the national regulatory reporter for Watchdog.org. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Reason Magazine, National Review Online, The Freeman Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Examiner and Fox News. He was once featured in a BuzzFeed listicle. Follow him on Twitter @EricBoehm87 and reach him at [email protected]