By Christine Carlson
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has proposed ending teacher seniority as part of a set of concessions from the teachers' union. He says he believes seniority is often viewed as protection for Philadelphia School District employees who don't serve children well, and he is using its potential demise to entice the state to invest more in the school system. But the union maintains that ending seniority would punish experienced teachers and give too much power to administrators.
Here's the dilemma: To support our children's teachers, must parents unconditionally accept the status quo? My children have had the opportunity to learn from talented, caring teachers who are a credit to their profession. And as a former teacher, I respect the union and understand that it offers many needed protections for teachers and students. But when it comes to hiring and layoffs, the union appears to be more concerned about teachers' seniority than the schools and students.
Take Mr. Rubenstein, for example. He used to be our school's technology teacher. Three years ago, when Gov. Corbett cut public education funding, Mr. Rubenstein was let go. He wasn't dismissed for any performance issue, and his position wasn't eliminated. Quite the contrary: He was one of the best teachers in the school. But since Mr. Rubenstein was the last teacher hired, he was the first to be fired. The best interest of the school community was not considered.
With the district's latest fiscal crisis, many teachers have received layoff notices based on last-in/first out. It's an eye-opener for parents, who are surprised to learn that their school's principal has no say in who is hired to teach in their school. Instead, when teaching positions open, the school is assigned the most senior person who requests the assignment.
Imagine running a business but being unable to hire the employees you believe will do the best job. Rather, a central office sends you the most senior person who wants the job. Would you want to be held responsible for the results?
The union contract does allow some teachers to be selected by a "site selection committee," which includes the principal, teachers, and parents. Schools may select all of their teachers this way if two-thirds of their teachers vote to allow it. The union and district call this "universal site selection." I call it common sense. Every school has a vision, and every school should have the right to choose the best people to fulfill it.
This is not to say that principals should have free rein in hiring and firing teachers. Due process for terminating employment is necessary, and principals must be expected to participate in, not control, the site-selection process.
Some argue that, with universal site selection, administrators would hire inexperienced teachers because they cost less. But in Philadelphia, each principal and school is budgeted the same amount for all teachers in the school, no matter how long their tenure. So there is no financial incentive to shy away from experienced teachers.
Others say site selection would leave low-performing schools staffed by the least desirable teachers. In fact, the opposite is true. Under the current seniority system, some teachers move from school to school to get to a "better" one, making no real commitment to schools along the way. Site selection would allow principals of low-performing schools to hire teachers who share a vision of the school and express long-term interest in its future. This won't stop teachers from pursuing other opportunities, but principals stand a better chance of building a cohesive team.
As a parent, I support our teachers. But it's time for the union to allow the district to implement universal site selection and end the last-in/first-out policy.
It's been two years since Mr. Rubenstein was laid off, and I am still saddened when I think of what my children would have learned under his tutelage. His loss was a loss for our city's students.