School district officials in Philadelphia are taking aim at rules requiring teacher layoffs and placements to be done based on seniority–the same kind of provision that was recently deemed unconstitutional in California. In Vergara vs. California—decided in June—an L.A. superior court judge struck down five teacher protection rules as unconstitutional, including a provision of the California Education Code that protected teachers with seniority.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has declined to rule on the Philadelphia School Reform Commission's authority to change similar teacher work rules. The Court's action is not a ruling for or against the School Reform Commission (SRC), but a statement that the court will not pass a decision on the matter.
In 2001 the state took control of the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) and replaced the school board with the SRC, which is composed of mayoral and gubernatorial appointees. This act was in response to SDP financial problems, and was paired with changes to school funding. Some of the SRC's responsibilities are to select a school district superintendent and fix the district's finances.
Current Superintendent William Hite Jr. and SRC Chairman Bill Green claim that doing so will require making changes to teacher work rules. They point out that Act 46, which established the SRC, charges it with addressing the school district's financial woes; and they say this gives the commission the authority to target rules shielding under-performing but tenured teachers.
In 2013, an SRC vote to rehire some school staff without considering seniority met with union opposition. But the district's previous collective bargaining agreement expired in the fall of 2013.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) does not believe that the SRC has the authority to make teacher work rule changes. It claims that suspending current work rules will not do anything to address the school district's problems and that the real problem is insufficient funding.
But Camden, New Jersey, just across the river in, shows that more money is not the answer. Despite spending more per-pupil than most districts in the country, Camden faces protests about getting rid of quality teachers. As long as SDP staffing is done by seniority, employees and pupils will suffer the same consequences as in Camden.
Philadelphia students, teachers, and parents deserve better than seniority-based staffing delivers. Every student in every classroom ought to have the best available teacher. Every parent should know that their child's teacher is there because they want to be, and because they were specifically chosen to fill that role. And every teacher deserves to be rewarded commensurate with their effort and talents.
Seniority-based staffing rules hurt students and directly interfere with school leaders attempting to meet instructional goals. The court declined to support the Philadelphia School Reform Commission. Philadelphians who care about education should do otherwise.