Within minutes of the Senate passing legislation to end the practice of furloughing teachers based on a “last-in, first-out” policy, Governor Wolf’s spokesman announced that he would veto it.

The Governor’s opposition to this commonsense legislation (House Bill 805) is as surprising as it is disappointing.  Pennsylvania has become an outlier amongst states for its stubborn commitment to this archaic practice.  The Commonwealth is one of six remaining states to mandate that seniority serve as the primary factor in determining which teachers to furlough when districts are forced to reduce personnel.

Unlike other education issues, where the battle lines are drawn between two distinct camps of “reformers” versus “traditionalists,” this bill has a broad base of support.  The Protect Excellent Teachers Act, has been endorsed by the education establishment, including the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, as well as a range of business and reform organizations, such as the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, the Pennsylvania Business Council, A-Plus Schools Pittsburgh, and my organization PennCAN.

Further, public opinion polling consistently shows that parents support policies that keep great teachers in their classroom.  In our most recent poll, 72 percent of respondents were supportive of schools making personnel decisions based on merit.  The general public knows intuitively what research proves empirically: teachers are the single greatest in-school factor contributing to student achievement.

In 2012, Pittsburgh Public Schools tried (and failed) to fix this policy and ultimately was forced by state law to furlough 16 of its highest-rated teachers.  In Philadelphia, Superintendent Dr. Hite has made reforming the seniority system one of his top priorities in negotiating a new contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.  But this is not an issue faced only by urban districts. Throughout the Commonwealth school boards are grappling with how to build an effective team of educators when principals do not have the autonomy to exempt their best teachers from furloughs.

So why is Governor Wolf standing in the way of HB805 becoming law?

First, his spokesman claimed that it violates local control.  But the truth is that current law violates local control because it forces districts to use seniority as the sole factor.

Second, he argued that layoffs are a distraction from his top priority of school funding.  But even if Wolf gets everything he wants in this upcoming budget, school districts across the Commonwealth may still need to reduce staff, thanks to declining enrollment in some districts and increasing pension costs in all districts.

Finally, some have questioned if the teacher evaluation system is good enough to be used for high-stakes personnel decisions.  The evaluation system uses multiple measures to assess teacher performance, including principal observations, student test scores, and locally designed goals and objectives.  In order for a teacher to get a failing rating, he or she must perform poorly on both the subjective and objective measures.  In fact, out of a 300-point evaluation, a teacher would need to receive a score of 40 (16 percent) to be rated as failing.  That’s why 98.2 percent of teachers were rated proficient or distinguished last year.

The reality is that the overwhelming majority of teachers are dedicated public servants who show up to work every day eager to make a difference in the lives of their students.  This bill is designed to protect those hardworking individuals.   The scope of the bill is very narrow.  In fact, it still protects the institution of seniority because seniority serves as the tiebreaker between teachers with equal ratings.

Ultimately, this bill comes down to one question:  In the unfortunate event when a district needs to furlough teachers, should the district be forced to layoff an effective teacher over an ineffective one?   Governor Wolf’s threat to veto HB805 suggests that he thinks the answer is yes.

The cynical analysis is that Governor Wolf is influenced by the one organization that opposes the bill: The Pennsylvania Education Association.   After all, they donated $805,000 to his campaign.

From my perspective, a more frustrating analysis is that this veto reflects the Governor’s belief that money is truly the only resource necessary to achieve success.  Regardless if he is influenced by politics or policy, the result for kids, if he vetoes the bill, is the same: fewer students will have access to excellent teachers.

Jonathan Cetel is the founding executive director of PennCAN. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


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