IN A SURPRISING MOVE, the new chairwoman of the School Reform Commission, Marjorie Neff, made it clear that she's 110 percent on board with her predecessor Bill Green's demands for dramatic changes to the teachers union contract.
Her bold stance is likely to be music to the ears of most of the Republicans, who comprise the majority in both the Pennsylvania House and Senate, many of whom are pushing for a new union contract before they will entertain giving the cash-starved district additional state funds.
Although financial issues loom large, the superintendent also made it clear that his priority is a new contract that reduces the role that seniority plays, so that principals can select the teachers who are the best for their school when new positions open up or when a school loses positions due to budget cuts or enrollment decline. Ending the decades-old practice of seniority driving teacher placement may get a cold response from the teachers union. But the work-rule changes that the superintendent and Neff want are good for teachers.
In 2013, when the contract was still in place, about a third of all vacancies were filled based on seniority alone. That meant that teachers with fewer years of service could not be considered for a position, even if a school wanted them, if another teacher with more years of service opted for the position.
Sometimes this system works out to be a good fit, but, since it's far from a matching process, there's a risk that a teacher who transfers into a school based on seniority could undermine the school team's morale and negatively affect teacher and student performance.
The longstanding work rule also meant that newer teachers with five to 10 years of service - or about 50 percent of the teaching force at the district - had to be very patient and wait their turn before they could teach in a school that wants them and where they could make a substantial contribution. That's why it's no surprise that some new teachers leave the district to teach in charter schools because they can more quickly teach in a school that is a good fit for them.
To make matters worse for newer teachers, the work rule also designated them as the first to be transferred to another school if their school lost a position. That's the case even if that newer teacher fulfilled an essential role in the building that none of the remaining teachers could or would be willing to absorb.
Without question, the seniority-protection work rule asks a lot of half of the district's teachers who are under 40 years old.
Years ago, the union agreed to a process called site selection that relies on a team of teachers, a union representative, a parent and the principal to interview and choose teachers. That process opened up great opportunity for teachers in some schools, but not all schools, and most certainly not all positions.
It would make sense to rely on seniority for teacher placement if it correlates with improved teacher performance. The U.S. Department of Education found that teachers need five years of experience to get near the top of their game, and that teaching capability increases slightly as teachers approaches their 12th year; after that little improvement is found. These findings explain why some districts across the state include seniority among the criteria for placement of teachers but, wisely, it's not the sole criteria for filing any position.
That sounds easy, but of course it's complicated to put in a contract. And, unfortunately, one of the laws of politics is that big problems must be resolved with expedience. That could mean that key state officials will find a way to solve the fiscal issues while the essential, commonsense work-rule reforms end up on the cutting-room floor.
What a missed opportunity that would be! The Philadelphia School District is fighting for its survival. That's why ending up with a contract that protects every teacher equally matters. Not only is this approach in the best interest of teachers, it's certainly in the best interests of our students.