JEFFERSON CITY — Legislation that would bar seniority from playing a role in Missouri teacher layoffs was narrowly approved Thursday by the state House.
School districts forced to reduce staff because of declining student enrollment, reorganization or financial problems would no longer be banned from laying off a tenured teacher while keeping staff members who have not yet earned tenure protections. Under the bill, teachers' seniority and salaries could not be a consideration when administrators choose which teachers to keep, and performance would need to be the most important factor in those decisions.
Additional consideration would be allowed for special training, certifications or licenses or for having created school tutoring or enrichment programs. Previous misconduct, criminal conduct or excessive unexcused absences could be held against teachers.
"We are going to dismiss faculty not according to seniority but performance, so that we can keep the best teachers in the classroom" when forced to make cuts, said House Education Committee Chairman Scott Dieckhaus, R-Washington, who sponsored the legislation.
Opponents argued the legislation effectively alters how teacher tenure would work in Missouri and could be a first step toward eliminating it. Others expressed concerns that local school officials' decisions would be inhibited by barring them from giving weight to the experience a teacher brings.
The House passed the legislation 83-76, which is just barely more than the minimum needed to approve bills. Passage came after lawmakers had stripped out other provisions, including a new teacher evaluation system and a tenure law change that would have allowed districts to get rid of teachers who do not perform well under that evaluation system.
After calling for the vote Thursday, House leaders spent about 12 minutes working to whip up sufficient support to approve the slimmed-down legislation. Ultimately, it was approved with the help of six Democrats, including Minority Leader Mike Talboy, of Kansas City, who told reporters later that the bill would allow schools to decide between keeping a good teacher and an exceptional one.
The bill now goes to the state Senate, with little time remaining before the constitutionally required adjournment of May 18.
School funding, unaccredited school districts and other education issues were among the priorities cited by lawmakers when they began the session. However, many of those issues have become bogged down.
House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said the teacher layoff measure involves a small change and a possible step toward a broader education overhaul. He said the current school system is saddled with requirements and bureaucracy while student test scores are not improving and some Missouri school districts continue to struggle.
Critics said the legislation is likely to cause anxiety for teachers without improving schools. Rep. Joe Aull said even if the legislation does not make significant changes, it comes from a context that many perceive as hostile to public schools.
"It's an attack on the way public schools operate, an attack on teachers," said Aull, D-Marshall, a former school superintendent.