The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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February 11, 2012

In Response: Teacher seniority bill about cutting, not learning

While it’s always good to read articles by people who care about our schools, on behalf of the state’s 70,000 educators I need to clarify a couple of points in The Free Press editorial of Wednesday.

The current state law does not require school districts to use seniority as the only basis for handling layoffs. For decades, the law has given school districts the flexibility to negotiate their own systems. Hundreds of districts have done so, including the Mankato Public Schools.

If there were layoffs in the Mankato schools, for example, educators who are part of the district’s affirmative action plan could be retained over more experienced teachers. Likewise, the district has negotiated an agreement that limits the ability of seasoned teachers to move around within the district to keep teaching.

The current state system allows local school districts and teachers to negotiate what’s best for their students. It’s only when districts don’t reach such agreements that they need to follow a seniority-based system, which recognizes the value of experience. Research has repeatedly shown that students tend to learn more from experienced teachers.

As the editorial noted, there’s a move in the Legislature to change the law. The supporters of the bill claim there’s a link between improving the quality of teaching in a district and removing seniority protections. There simply isn’t.

Seniority protections apply on the rare occasions when districts have mass teacher layoffs, usually for budget reasons. Teacher quality, on the other hand, should be an issue every day. If there’s a problem with a teacher, there’s no reason for school districts to wait until a budget crisis to act.

The bill would make it easier for cash-strapped districts to shed expensive, senior teachers for their less-experienced colleagues. The fear of a vindictive layoff would also discourage teachers from forcefully advocating for their students. That’s bad for kids. This proposal is far more about budget cutting than student learning.

The bill also misses the point. Minnesota schools have absorbed a steep slide in per-pupil funding since 2003 and been forced to loan the state government billions of dollars to cover budget deficits. Class sizes have now climbed to 47th in the nation.

It’s time for the Legislature to get serious about the big issues facing public education in Minnesota and stop fixating on red herrings like this bill.

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