Updated at 8:39 a.m. on May 5.
Two prominent education groups are lobbying for a pending education jobs bill to include teacher tenure reform.
"If we want to improve teacher effectiveness, we have to make it count," said Timothy Daly, president of the New Teacher Project. "Ignoring performance when it comes to high-impact decisions like layoffs sends the message that we aren't really serious about putting a great teacher in every classroom."
Nationwide, most schools make teacher layoff decisions based on seniority, a system dubbed "last-hired, first-fired" by critics. The New Teacher Project and the Education Trust advocate for using criteria that gauge teacher effectiveness, instead of relying solely on seniority, to make staffing cuts.
The Keep Our Educators Working Act, a $23 billion measure intended to curb teacher layoffs, could be the vehicle to do it. With states in dire need of money, tying tenure reform to an injection of federal cash might have a greater impact than some recent state-led efforts, advocates hope.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist garnered national attention last month with his decision to veto a state bill that would have abolished the traditional tenure system, among other things. Efforts to tie student performance to teacher evaluation in Georgia also collapsed last week when the bill at hand failed to reach a floor vote on the last day of the legislative session. In the Louisiana and Colorado legislatures, measures to reform teacher evaluation systems are pending.
State education reform efforts may be linked to funding in Race to the Top, now a $3.4 billion federal grant competition whose second round of applications has a little less than a month remaining. Race to the Top places a premium on teacher effectiveness: Reform in that area constitutes 28 percent of the competition's grading scale, the single biggest category of possible points.
But in the education jobs bill, which would allocate about five times the amount of money in the original Race to the Top fund, teacher reform isn't part of the discussion.
"This a state and local decision," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, "but my hope is that -- even in tough budget times -- we can keep the best teachers in the classrooms where they are needed the most."
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin, who sponsored the teacher jobs bill, is not open to including teacher reform. "Right now, the most important thing is to stop the bleeding," the Iowa Democrat said at a press conference in support of the bill.
Teacher reform needs to be dealt with in a more thoughtful way through reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Harkin said. The process of reauthorization is under way in Congress.
Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country, also rejected the idea of including teacher reform in the jobs bill, calling it "grossly unfair to teachers." Van Roekel added that most school districts don't have a decent evaluation system in place and that snapshot test scores don't measure teacher effectiveness. Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, also vehemently opposes adding teacher tenure reform to the bill.
To date, the education jobs bill has no Republican support.
When asked if he would back the measure, Senate HELP Committee member John McCain, R-Ariz., responded, "How is [Harkin] going to pay for it? I want to know how he is going to pay." Another GOP member, Richard Burr of North Carolina, said he hadn't seen the bill but "couldn't imagine" he would support it, positing that it's not the role of the federal government to hire teachers.
If the bill is unable to pass as a standalone, a Senate appropriations staffer indicated that it may latch on to a military supplemental (subscription).
At this point, tying any education reform strings to the Harkin bill appears unlikely, but reform advocates continue to make their case.
"We know that seniority-neutral layoffs save far more jobs than 'last-hired, first-fired' policies do," said Amy Wilkins, vice president for Government Affairs and Communications at the Education Trust. "If the goal is to save teacher jobs, let's make sure this money actually does that."