Tweak Hartford's Teacher Seniority System To Preserve School Strengths
Hartford Courant Editorial
March 20, 2010
It is easy to get drawn into the union-management aspects of public education and forget that the schools are there for the kids. What the kids need are stars in the classroom: great teachers.
With that in mind, the public should support the effort by Hartford school leaders to change from a system of district-wide teacher seniority to one of school-based seniority.
The city's Board of Education voted Tuesday to ask the State Board of Education to step in and change this contractual guarantee. The state board has the authority to intervene in low-achieving schools to alter a union contract, but to date has never done so.
Under the current rules, the least experienced teachers are the first to be laid off and can be "bumped" by more experienced teachers from any school in the district. This can result in a disruptive shuffle of teachers among various schools.
Supporters of the proposed change say this endangers the quality of specialty schools, where particular themes or methods require teachers to have special qualifications or training.
Teacher seniority and tenure was born decades ago as a good-government response to patronage firings of teachers. There is still a place for seniority, to prevent the arbitrary removal of teachers. But seniority should not interfere with the quality of the school.
System-wide seniority may have made sense when the schools were all the same, but now they are different. Principals of magnet and charter schools have been given considerable autonomy with budgets and curriculums; they should have the same with personnel.
Altering a union contract is not a step that should be taken lightly, but Hartford's situation is dire. After laying off 240 employees last year, the school district projects as many as 180 layoffs this year, half of whom could be teachers. The city has to be able to absorb these losses with as little disruption as possible.
The proposed change would put a particular burden on teachers from schools that are being phased out or redesigned, such as Quirk Middle or Betances, but the good teachers from those schools are likely to be hired elsewhere.
Seniority rules would still apply within each building. Also, if the state board takes this step, the Hartford teachers union should expect to be compensated via the bargaining process.
School officials in Rhode Island and a few other states have taken similar steps to help urban schools. Under the circumstances, so should Connecticut.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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