RECENT efforts to eliminate seniority and tenure protections for Pennsylvania's professional school employees demonstrate a lack of understanding about the benefits that an objective selection process provides to all - faculty, students, parents . . . or to anyone who wants a system free from the cronyism which once ruled the city and its school district.
There are many misconceptions about how seniority works. Seniority protects workers from being unfairly fired because of the personal biases or political interests of management. It does not prevent mediocre or incompetent teachers from being fired. The responsibility to terminate an ineffectual teacher rests with administration alone. Rather than follow the official procedure, which involves time and paperwork, many principals simply transfer the teacher to another school.
Seniority has much less to do with teacher placement than it did just 10 years ago. Creation of site-selection committees in all schools has resulted in community and administrative choice in more than 75 percent of teacher appointments. Nor do seniority rights determine which teachers are promoted to leadership positions within schools; again, only principals can make those choices. Seniority has been invoked absolutely only in the event of district layoffs. This prevents principals from arbitrarily choosing who gets axed based on favoritism and political considerations, and it protects teachers who have been outspoken at school-board meetings about improprieties or substandard conditions.
Tenure, also widely misunderstood, does not guarantee any elementary or high-school teacher a job for life, as it does in higher education. It is another safeguard against administrators firing teachers for reasons other than ineffective teaching or lack of classroom control. Tenure also prevents local school boards from dismissing educators who address controversial subjects, such as climate change or evolution. Tenure simply guarantees due process in the event of disciplinary action.
In August, the School Reform Commission voted to "temporarily" rescind seniority rights of the district's professional employees, thus negating more than 40 years of good-faith bargaining.
Has the suspension of seniority rights transformed the rusty machinery of the Philadelphia School District into a well-oiled machine? Hardly. Superintendent Hite's incremental and seemingly random rehiring of some of the 3,859 support staff that he laid off in July has only contributed to the chaotic situations in many schools. Almost 60 percent of the district's students attend a school whose counselor is assigned to seven others every week.
Seniority is not a perfect system. But to paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, it is the worst system except for all the others. Seniority provides stability for teachers, students, parents and administrators. Professionals who make the financial and personal commitments required for one of the most important jobs in our society need, and deserve, basic job security. Putting decisions that affect the stability of our schools back into the hands of politicians - the same ones whose refusal to pass a fair funding system has created enough hardship already - is a mistake with repercussions for years to come.