Jonathan Cetel was invited to defend the merits of House Bill 805 (The Protect Excellent Teachers Act), which Governor Wolf vetoed last week, on NewsWorks Tonight. You can listen to the audio (3:22) or read Jonathan’s remarks below.

The only way I survived my experience teaching in Philadelphia public schools was through the mentorship of several veteran educators.   

In my second year, a first-year teacher arrived who made me reimagine what was possible.   I had seen good teaching before.  With him, I discovered what great teaching looks like. 

This was 2008 and the world economy was about to collapse.  Soon, the School District was forced to layoff nearly 1,000 teachers.  By any measure, the rookie should have been spared a pink slip.    

But Pennsylvania is one of only six remaining states in the country that require school districts to use one factor, and one factor only, in determining who gets laid off.  Seniority.  

The all-star rookie was cut.    

Last week, Governor Wolf vetoed House Bill 805: The Protecting Excellent Teachers Act. In the unfortunate case of layoffs, the bill would permit school districts to use the results of Pennsylvania’s teacher evaluation system to determine which teachers to lay off.

If this sounds commonsense, that’s because it is.  But nothing in Harrisburg is easy, and the bill is politically challenging for one reason: the state’s two largest teachers’ unions oppose it.   

It’s important to remember, though, that unions can be on the opposite side of issues that are dear to progressives.  Think of the relationship between the Black Lives Matter movement and the Fraternal Order of Police over criminal justice reform, or the environmentalists who have been sparring with the construction unions over the Keystone pipeline.

Teachers unions fight for the interests of their members, as is their mission.  And usually, their interests are aligned with the needs of students.  School funding as just one of many examples. 

But sometimes student and adult interests are not aligned. 

That’s why several prominent Democrats broke ranks and publicly urged Governor Wolf to sign The Protect Excellent Teachers Act.  It’s why Superintendent Dr. Hite has made reforming seniority protections one of his top priorities in his contract negotiations with Philadelphia teachers.  And it’s why newspapers across the state – 7 as of this morning – have editorialized in favor of the bill. 

They know that we don’t have to choose between fighting for a fair funding formula or fighting for reforms.  We can and must do both.  They know that basing layoff decisions on merit doesn’t mean we are “blaming teachers”; it’s treating them like the high-skilled professionals they are.

Education policy is a bit like managing a baseball team.  Ultimately, it’s all about the players on the field. If we lose sight of that fundamental truth, we risk keeping Howard in the lineup and demoting Nola, Franco, and Velazques to the minors.  Just as that would be unacceptable to Phillies fans, maintaining the current seniority system should be unacceptable to the parents of the 200,000 thousand Philadelphia public school children.


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