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Change sought in gauging teachers

Proposal could affect seniority

Paul Toner, Massachusetts Teachers Association president, said, “My members feel like they are being attacked.”

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Paul Toner, Massachusetts Teachers Association president, said, “My members feel like they are being attacked.”

A state ballot initiative that would make the performance of teachers - rather than years of service - the top consideration in whether they keep their jobs is gaining some momentum, even as it faces strong opposition from teachers unions, state education leaders, and other educators.

Lobbyists for and against the initiative will descend on Beacon Hill in the coming weeks as the Legislature considers the proposal. The initiative moved to the Legislature last week, after the secretary of state’s office certified that organizers had secured enough signatures to advance to the next stage of the lengthy process to get a question on a state ballot.

Organizers contend that limiting seniority could go a long way in ensuring that students have talented teachers at the head of their classes, especially in times of budget cuts. Because job security in union contracts across the state is typically based on years of service, school districts routinely lay off dynamic new teachers while having to keep some veteran teachers who long ago lost their passion, organizers assert.

The initiative also includes a number of other provisions that aim to bolster teacher quality, such as giving principals greater latitude to hire teachers than allowed in many union contracts.

“A child regardless of ZIP code or background should have a great teacher,’’ said Jason Williams, Massachusetts executive director for Stand for Children, a national nonprofit education advocacy organization that launched the ballot initiative last summer.

But opponents say the initiative is unnecessary and in many ways redundant: The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education passed regulations last summer that make student achievement a significant factor in teacher evaluations and also accelerated the timeline to fire teachers with poor reviews. Now, many school districts and teachers unions are making contract changes to implement that new evaluation system.

Opponents of the initiative have found a powerful ally in the state’s education secretary, Paul Reville, who worries that a ballot campaign could create a divisive atmosphere and steer attention away from other critical education work, such as ramping up literacy instruction in elementary schools.

“Stand for Children, I thought, was going to work cooperatively in realizing the new system,’’ Reville said yesterday. “They jumped the gun with this ballot campaign. It’s way premature.’’

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is exploring a legal challenge to the ballot question, believing the attorney general’s office last year should never have allowed it to move forward because it involves complex policy issues too difficult for voters to sort out on election day, said Paul Toner, the association’s president. The proposed law is about five pages long.

“My members feel like they are being attacked,’’ Toner said.

He also defended the use of seniority in job security, saying that a robust evaluation system ensures that veteran teachers are effective in the classroom.

“We do believe experience matters,’’ Toner said. “We need experienced teachers to help mentor new teachers. Our problem is not getting rid of teachers, but holding onto teachers. It’s a challenging profession, especially in the urban districts.’’

As part of the process, more than a year long, for getting a question on a state ballot, the attorney general’s office decides early on whether a petition is appropriate before organizers begin collecting signatures from a minimum of 3 percent - 68,911 - of registered voters.

With Stand for Children’s ballot initiative before the Legislature, that body has the power to make the initiative law without having to put the question before voters. However, the Legislature cannot amend the wording.

If the Legislature votes it down or fails to act by the first Wednesday in May, organizers must collect an additional 11,485 signatures to get the initiative on the ballot this November.

Williams said he sees Stand’s petition as an extension of the work the state did last summer in revising regulations for teacher evaluations, giving the rules more muscle. For instance, the regulations leave it up to school districts and local unions to adopt the measures, while the ballot question would legally require school districts and unions statewide to adopt a uniform evaluation system.

“I do want to emphasize we are incredibly proud of the work that the commissioner and other state leaders led last year,’’ Williams said. “We believe now is the time to finish the work.’’

Stand for Children has been in Massachusetts since 2003 and has chapters in Boston, Lexington, Winchester, and about a dozen other communities. But some education advocates have grown suspicious of its motives.

“It’s got huge money from corporations and the right wing,’’ said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, which has not yet taken an official position on the ballot initiative. “They are preying on the bad press that unions have received. . . . It’s a savvy political organization.’’

However, Williams said the organization is not funded by major corporations and instead receives donations from individuals and foundations.

Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said his organization is still evaluating the ballot initiative, and members he has heard from so far have mixed opinions.

“Having broader control over personnel decisions would be a distinct advantage,’’ Scott said. “But other aspects we do feel uncomfortable with. . . . One of the biggest concerns I hear from members with the ramping-up of the new evaluation system is that the timing [of the initiative] is not good.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.

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