By Michael Diedrich, Guest Columnist
The past few weeks have seen a major legislative battle in Saint Paul about teacher seniority and school layoffs. The proposed policy, spearheaded by the same legislators happy to cut school funding at any opportunity, would replace seniority with an undeveloped, unproven evaluation system when schools are forced to fire teachers because the money’s run out. This is the wrong fight, waged for the wrong reasons, and it’s wrong for Greater Minnesota.
Our fight should be about how to avoid layoffs, not how to conduct them. After a decade of letting inflation slash state support to schools, too many districts have reached or passed the point of nothing left to cut. Still, they carry on, seeking out new ways to save here and there without having to further reduce their staff sizes. We’ve seen districts adopting four-day school weeks, rearranging breaks to lower utility costs and pushing out their busing boundaries. This is not good for our schools, and it’s not good for our kids.
What would be good for our kids would be a state government that follows through on its commitment to support local schools. Instead, we’ve seen less money, and it’s been spread out by delayed payments. We need more equitable funding that helps rural areas keep up with the Twin Cities, but we only get the same platitudes about increasing efficiency and “doing more with less.” Our schools have been “doing more with less” for years now, and it’s time for that to stop.
This fight about seniority, layoffs and the new evaluation system also undermines the principle of local control that has always been central to our school policy. Under current law, districts can negotiate alternatives to seniority on their own, and four out of every 10 districts (serving six of every 10 students) in the state have done so.
The new law doesn’t trust local districts to negotiate the right deal for their communities, requiring districts to either use the statewide evaluation system that’s still in development or develop their own system that meets the same standards.
What’s more, this is the worst kind of state overreach, forcing districts to fire teachers using this new system during the first year that system is being tried statewide. This is not responsible, and it could force districts to fire teachers everyone knows shouldn’t be kicked out.
This isn’t to say that the current approach doesn’t occasionally have a similar problem, but rather to say that we don’t know the new system would be any better. We shouldn’t have to sacrifice local control in exchange for a system that might not be any better (and really could be worse) than what we already have.
This distracting fight that undermines local control comes from many of the same legislative conservatives that have resisted efforts to give schools the resources they need to succeed. State support for schools has declined 13 percent since 2003, but these legislators want to cut more. Some have even tried to convince communities they don’t represent to vote down their own local support. This is not the approach of people who truly care about the success of our public schools.
What we’re really seeing here is the next set of steps in a long-standing conservative campaign against public schools. They can camouflage their intention by talking about “closing the achievement gap” and “accountability” (and there are plenty of people who are truly working toward these goals), but the real impacts of conservative-supported “reform” are less money for schools, more hostility towards teachers, less respect for local districts and more obstacles to our kids’ success. It’s time for this to stop.
Michael Diedrich is a policy associate with MN2020.org.