by Jonathan Cetel in the Patriot-News/Pennlive

Earlier this month, Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed a bill designed to protect teachers with a strong track record of performance from being laid off when school districts are forced to furlough teachers in order to cut costs. 

Legislation sponsored by Rep. Steve Bloom, R-Cumberland, has the support of an unusually broad coalition of business, civic, and education organizations who, frankly, are embarrassed that Pennsylvania is one of only six remaining states that require seniority to serve as the sole factor in determining layoffs.

With the veto of this commonsense policy, the man who campaigned on a platform that prioritized education is making his priorities as Governor very clear: special interests come before the needs of students and families.

Wolf’s track record so far indicates that his theory of change for public education revolves around a singular solution: more money.

To be fair, he is partially right. We absolutely need to continue working to repair Pennsylvania’s inequitable funding system. But it’s a false choice between increasing funding and reforming the system.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle often pivot to one issue in order to avoid discussing the other, when the reality is that we need both.

An increase in public education spending must be paired with meaningful reforms if we are going to improve outcomes for students.

Recently, in an unusual display of bicameral collaboration on one of these meaningful reforms, the leaders of the House and the Senate held a joint press conference urging the Governor to sign the Bloom bill.

As Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said, “If you aren’t for this, I don’t know what education reform you are for.”

He’s right.

The protection of Pennsylvania’s best teachers is a no-brainer.

Polling consistently shows that the vast majority of Democrat and Republican voters want staffing decisions in schools to be based on merit, not seniority.

The cost of implementing this policy is zero.

And most importantly, it resonates with the average voter who understands that in the private sector, it would be considered illogical to remove a top performing professional over a lower performing employee with more years under their belt.

Teachers deserve be treated like professionals. But that requires operating under similar work rules as other high-skilled workers.

Likewise, teachers deserve reasonable job protections, but families deserve even more protection to ensure that their school district is using every tool at its disposal to ensure their child has a great teacher.

The Bloom bill is far from a silver bullet.  It addresses one small piece of the teacher quality puzzle (layoffs).

But if we can’t reach an agreement on an issue as simple as this, how will Pennsylvania solve the bigger education policy challenges on the horizon, such as intervening in academically and financially failing districts, updating Pennsylvania’s outdated charter reform law, and implementing the new federal education law.

Ultimately, the only winner in this veto is the teachers union, which was the only educational organization to actively oppose the bill.

The silver lining is that leaders in the House and Senate are now even more motivated to insist that a final 2016-17 budget agreement includes some meaningful education reforms.

In his veto letter, Wolf insisted he is “committed to greater accountability in our schools.”

I hope that’s true. But actions speak louder than words.

Last week’s action to veto a bipartisan, commonsense bill means that Pennsylvania has squandered an opportunity to change the status quo of a system that is designed to protect the interests of adults, not students.

Jonathan Cetel is executive director of PennCAN: The Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now. He writes from Philadelphia.


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