Late last year, a new bill concerning Pennsylvania schools and teachers passed both houses of legislation and became law without the signature of Governor Tom Wolf. Governor Wolf has expressed serious concern about some of the provisions in the bill.
The amendments to the Pennsylvania School Code addresses many issues including using the state test known as the Keystone Exam as a requirement to graduate from high school, mandatory training for school boards, and increased subsidies for private schools. By far the most controversial change included in the bill deals with laying off teachers during times of economic hardship.
Prior to the passing of House Bill 178, school districts used a traditional model for deciding which teachers get laid off when cutbacks are necessary. The LIFO policy, or “last-in, first-out” uses a teacher’s length of tenure to decide who is cut first and who stays. Now, seniority is no longer the main criteria in making cuts.
In 2013-14, Pennsylvania introduced the teacher effectiveness rating system to evaluate educators in state school systems, including school administrators and principals. The rating system consists of four components: 50 percent classroom observation, 15 percent building-level standardized test data, 15 percent teacher-specific standardized test data, and 20 percent elective data that the school determines. As per the new law, teachers who have two consecutive years of “unsatisfactory” ratings would be first to be laid off, then those with “needs improvement,” and “proficient.” Last to be laid off would be teachers with ratings of “distinguished.”
Seniority would only come into play when teachers have equal ratings and in those cases, the teacher with the shorter tenure length would be laid off first. The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, strongly opposed the changes. The President of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers also voiced opposition and said that debates about economic furloughs are the wrong place to use the teacher effectiveness rating system. The unions want evaluations to be used only to help teachers improve their craft and to ensure that good teachers stay in the classroom.
In contrast, school boards and administrators feel the bill allows for more flexibility and reorganization. Prior to the change, they were only allowed to cut staff when enrollment was down, when schools are consolidated, or when specific academic programs are eliminated. They say the new legislation allows better and more efficient reorganization instead of having to abolish an entire music, art, or full-day kindergarten program when making cuts.