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Teachers union wisely puts quality ahead of seniority

The compromise agreement between the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the advocacy group Stand for Children doesn’t provide absolute assurance that every child in the state will have the benefit of a competent, dedicated teacher. But it does push the system in that direction, albeit slowly.

Stand for Children was plowing ahead with a tough ballot initiative that would have eliminated nearly all aspects of teacher seniority in the state’s public school systems. It went so far as to put non-tenured teachers with three years or less experience — so-called provisionals — on par with the most senior teachers during layoffs. The Massachusetts Teachers Association mobilized its more than 100,000 union members for what promised to be a costly and divisive battle. And with neither side confident of the outcome, each agreed to give some ground.


The union gave up less. Under the compromise legislation, for example, provisional teachers — no matter how promising — will continue to be laid off before senior teachers. The union also eludes the ballot question’s requirement that every school district adopt a model teacher-evaluation method or state-approved alternative. Under the compromise legislation, school districts retain more leeway, and the emphasis shifts to more comprehensive reporting of teacher-evaluation data.

But there is real reform in the compromise bill. Unlike now, teacher performance — and not seniority — becomes the new touchstone for reassignments, transfers, and other staffing decisions. Currently, principals have shockingly little control over who gets placed in teaching roles in their schools. Time and again, school leaders must yield to seniority. The compromise bill makes a huge course correction by giving principals significantly more power to build their faculties through the teacher-evaluation process. The compromise also would put an end to absurd situations like the one in Boston last year when the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year was bumped out of a classroom by a teacher with more years on the job.


Unfortunately, the Massachusetts Teachers Association succeeded in delaying the effects of the legislation until the 2016-17 school year. Sooner would have been better, even if it created timing problems with the implementation of new evaluation methods. Job performance should trump seniority, pure and simple. And the sooner it happens, the stronger the state’s classrooms will be.

The state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which is smaller but more vocal than the Massachusetts Teachers Association, opposes the compromise legislation. That could lead to attempts to kill or amend the bill. But any weakening would render it toothless. Legislative leaders and the governor, who have expressed support for the bill, should guard against such amendments.

The compromise legislation saves the state from a bitter ballot fight and codifies teacher performance as the primary factor in school staffing decisions. On balance, that’s a triumph.