PROVIDENCE –– A bill that would base teacher tenure on performance rather than years of service was debated before the Senate Labor Committee Wednesday afternoon, revealing fault lines between those who embrace dramatic changes pushed by Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist and those who have resisted them.
Supporting the bill are the education advocacy organization RI-CAN, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and, perhaps most powerfully, students in the group Young Voices, who say it is “unethical” to lay off excellent teachers only because less effective teachers have more seniority.
“We need to lay off teachers based on who is the least effective, not the last to get hired,” said Jeleny De Leon, a senior at Providence’s Classical High School. “This should revolve around the best interest of the students.”
Opposing the bill are teachers’ union officials. They say the bill as written contains flaws and bases a teacher’s job security on a brand-new evaluation system that is still being ironed out. Furthermore, they say state law already allows districts to remove bad teachers “for cause.”
“We are adamantly opposed to this bill,” said Jim Parisi, field representative with the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers. “Teachers are already unsettled about their jobs with the new evaluation system. … I hope the Rhode Island Senate is not opposed to due process rights for teachers.”
A companion bill is scheduled to be heard by the House of Representatives Thursday.
Senate Bill 2531, introduced by Sen. Donna M. Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket, would end the current system of teacher tenure — which most teachers automatically receive after three years of working in a district — and replace it with a requirement that teachers receive satisfactory ratings for three years under the state’s new teacher-evaluation system to receive tenure.
The bill would also change the way teachers laid off for budgetary reasons are recalled. Now, they are recalled based on seniority — their years of service to the district. The bill would require that districts first review a teacher’s evaluations and if all things are equal among teachers, then recall them based on seniority.
The bill would also change the date teachers are notified of layoffs from March 1 to June 1.
“I know it is controversial to connect tenure to performance,” Nesselbush said, “but performance is very important.
“We need to advance the debate on a very important and pressing issue if our state is to educate its youth and compete in the labor force.”
Under Gist, the state Department of Education has developed a statewide evaluation system and revamped teacher certification to be linked to a teacher’s performance in the classroom. The department supports the concepts behind the bill, especially changing the layoff-notification date, said Paul Pontarelli, the department’s legal counsel. But some details in the bill would have to be changed to agree with current regulations, he said.