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Veteran Invokes Pa. Preference Law in Suit Over Teaching Job

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A Vietnam veteran who is suing for a teaching job in a Pennsylvania school district has the state's educators worried that their hiring practices could be overruled by a 100-year-old state law.

Lawyers for Gordon Brickhouse are trying to convince the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that the veteran is entitled to a job as a public school teacher on the basis of veterans' preference--a state law that gives veterans of military service special consideration for public employment.

Mr. Brickhouse meets the state's minimum requirements for teaching: He has a state teaching certificate and graduated from an accredited teacher education program in the state.

This winter, the state supreme court will decide whether those arguments hold up. An appeals court in Pennsylvania ruled last year in favor of the veteran.

Most states have similar laws, although some go further in giving veterans preference in hiring, according to officials from the U.S. Labor Department's office of veterans' employment and training.

Administrators, local school board members, and other teachers have assailed Mr. Brickhouse's interpretation of the law, arguing that it would give districts almost no latitude in hiring.

"This has the potential of lowering the quality of faculty in all schools because [employers] couldn't set standards," Stinson Stroup, the executive director of the Pennsylvania School Administrators Association, said.

State legislators, meanwhile, have been looking at amending the preference law.

In 1990, Mr. Brickhouse applied for a job as a high school social-studies teacher in the Spring-Ford school district.

Mr. Brickhouse, a computer-science teacher at New Life Youth and Family Services in Harleysville, Pa., a private facility for troubled youths, has been teaching off and on since 1979.

He has taught mostly in juvenile-detention centers in Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Dakota.

He said he had hoped that his experience teaching high school government, social studies, and economics--and the 538-page history text he wrote--would give him an edge over the competition.

But the district did not hire Mr. Brickhouse. School officials decided that another candidate--who was substitute teaching in the district at the time--was more qualified.

Mr. Brickhouse said he later told school officials he was a veteran and entitled to preference, but their decision did not change.

He sued the district, but the local body that heard his complaint sided with the district, according to Jeffrey Quinn, the lawyer for the school system. Soon after, a trial court came to the same conclusion.

But in the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court--the first appeals level in the state--the decision was reversed in favor of Mr. Brickhouse. The court found that he was entitled to the job and back pay. It ruled that veterans' preference, a teaching certificate, and a degree from an accredited education school should have put Mr. Brickhouse at the top of the district's list.

Difference of Opinion

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court now has to decide whether that decision should stand.

Mr. Quinn claimed that the state law has been interpreted too broadly. For preference to come into play, a veteran should both meet the minimum standards and be qualified for the position, he said.

Mr. Brickhouse, who said the district turned him down because his college grade-point average was lower than the other candidate's, disagreed.

"The issue isn't whether I'm qualified to do the job," he said. "I have the certificate; I'm allowed to teach in the Pennsylvania public schools."

But several state education groups have sided with the district. The P.S.A.A., the state teachers' union, and the school boards' association filed a brief supporting the district's right to hold candidates to rigorous hiring standards.

"Our sense is that, while we might not oppose giving preference to an equally qualified candidate, the [interpretation] would just be taking too much discretion" from employers, Mr. Stroup said.

"We're committed to getting the best-qualified candidates--beyond the minimum certification," he added.

A Ripple Effect

Some educators in the state said they are worried that a ruling in favor of Mr. Brickhouse will hamper their efforts to recruit top graduates.

Others said they feared a ripple effect--that many veterans would also lay claim to jobs in administration, custodial services, or school transportation. "My attorney said he's never had a case that has stirred so much interest," Mr. Brickhouse said.

In the wake of publicity over the lawsuit, several veterans in the state have gotten jobs as public employees by invoking the preference act, he added.

Mr. Stroup of the P.S.A.A. said a projected increase in teacher hiring in Pennsylvania could give veterans who meet state teaching requirements a prime opportunity to get the jobs.

Large numbers of longtime faculty members are retiring in the state, and enrollment has increased slightly in many local school districts.

"There are going to be lots of vacancies," Mr. Stroup said. "And if the opinion stands, the preference is going to be given to veterans."

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