HARRISBURG - Republicans who control the state legislature have pushed through a hotly contested bill to allow public schools to circumvent seniority when laying off teachers.

The bill passed the Senate by a 26-22 vote Monday that fell largely along party lines. It now goes to Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, who pledged to veto it. Through a spokesman, he said the state's focus should not be on mass layoffs but rather on "how to invest in our schools, which already have the tools to evaluate underperforming teachers."

The measure, dubbed the "Protecting Excellent Teachers Act," hones in on a long-standing and contentious issue in public education: the protection of teachers based solely on tenure.

It would eliminate seniority-based furloughs and instead base those decisions on teacher performance ratings. It would also allow layoffs for economic reasons. Currently, school districts can furlough employees only because of a decrease in enrollment, a change in educational programs, or consolidation of schools.

In a layoff situation, teachers who have received failing grades would be the first to go regardless of their length of tenure. Next in line would be teachers who received a "needs improvement" rating. Seniority would determine suspensions among employees with the same overall performance rating, according to a copy of the bill.

At the same time, the legislation would bar a school district from using a teacher's pay and benefits in determining layoffs.

The bill's supporters, including the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said it would set up a fairer system for making difficult personnel decisions, and help keep quality teachers in the classroom.

Some advocates also said seniority-based layoffs disproportionately hurt poor school districts, which often employ a greater number of new teachers and which experience high turnover under the current system.

The bill "finally says goodbye to a system that serves adults, not schoolchildren, by dispelling the crazy notion that the only way to measure a teacher's value is by how long they've worked in a school government system," Sen. Ryan Aument (R., Lancaster), the measure's Senate sponsor, said Monday. "It ensures that our schools will be staffed with the most effective, highly rated teachers, which we know makes all the difference for student performance and outcomes."

The legislation passed the House last June. It was not clear what spurred action on the measure Monday in the Senate.

Opponents noted that because the current teacher-evaluation standards are relatively new, it is not yet certain that they are the best barometers in grading a teacher's performance.

The standards went into effect under former Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, and use multiple measures, not just classroom observation, to determine a teacher's overall score.

"The teacher evaluation system is still an untested system," said David Broderic, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, adding: "Basing an educator's job and livelihood on an untested system is far from a good idea."

Asked why seniority is a good measure, Broderic said: "Time in the classroom does make a difference in the expertise of an educator. Experience counts in public education."

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