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Editorial: Challenging teacher tenure

Kindergarten teacher Melissa Mazzalonga asks students questions inside

Kindergarten teacher Melissa Mazzalonga asks students questions inside her classroom at Washington Elementary School in Huntington, Thursday, April 3, 2014. Credit: Steve Pfost

The teacher tenure war that's been simmering across the nation for years has begun to boil over. The battle is now in Philadelphia, but it started in California and is spreading to New York. Hopefully, the ability of some teachers to keep their jobs no matter how poorly they perform will soon end. Here's a recap.

Philadelphia has an ineffective school system and teachers unions fighting change. What's at stake is a cornerstone of unionism: employment decisions based on years of service. Officials laid off 3,800 teachers last year, but 1,600 were called back. The layoffs were done by seniority, as the teacher contract and state law demand. For the callbacks, though, criteria other than length of service were considered.

Because the city's schools are under state control due to financial and academic issues, Pennsylvania law protecting the privileges of seniority can be suspended. Less clear is whether the teacher contract that enshrines seniority also can be bypassed. As more staff cuts are in the works for the upcoming school year, the city is telling school administrators they can bypass seniority to retain younger teachers if the ones they keep are measurably better, and the unions are pushing back.

The confrontation in Philadelphia comes weeks after a lower court judge in California blew up that state's tenure law. The judge ruled that tenure disproportionately affected the education of low-income students by letting poor teachers, too often parked in minority neighborhood schools, stay in place.

Shifting the emphasis in the tenure debate from one that protects the free expression rights of teachers to one that shows a union work rule is hurting education for poor students could be revolutionary. Getting better teachers to the poorest kids is a national problem. President Barack Obama addressed it this week by dedicating $4.2 million to help states devise plans to provide great teachers to children who need them most.

Meanwhile, the education-advocacy group New York City Parents Union was quick to test here the legal argument that triumphed in California, filing a challenge to New York's tenure laws. Only 12 teachers in New York City were fired for poor performance between 1997 and 2007 because of 3020-a, the law that often ensures dismissing one bad educator will take years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The other battleground in the education wars has been the new Common Core educational standards and the changing curricula implemented across the country. Parents are upset by how Common Core has been implemented in New York, and rightly so. But they're also riled up by teacher unions decrying Common Core when what the unions mostly oppose is the teacher performance evaluations tied to student scores on standardized tests.

Now GOP gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino, Westchester's county executive, wants to create an anti-Common Core ballot line he can headline to attract voters who hate the initiative. That's not the best way to have an honest, nuanced debate about measuring teacher performance. In some cases, the best teachers are the longest serving, in others they are not. The fight in New York is over the idea that merit, not seniority, will be the main factor determining teachers' futures.

That's an outcome the unions oppose, but students must have.