Policy Brief

R.I. Chief Launches Effort to Soften Seniority's Grip

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Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Deborah A. Gist has told districts to work to eliminate teacher-assignment practices based on seniority when their collective bargaining agreements come up for renewal this year. She wants assignments to be based on performance criteria instead.

The policy is part of the Rhode Island’s new Basic Education Program that takes effect next July.

In a letter to the state’s local superintendents, Ms. Gist said the program requires that the “continuous improvement of student learning” be the basis for all decisionmaking. “In my view, no system that bases teacher assignments solely on seniority can comply with this regulation,” the letter says.

But the National Education Association Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, who together represent 12,000 public school teachers in the state, were blindsided by the announcement.

“We’re going to court,” said Marcia Reback, the president of the federation. “This narrows the scope of collective bargaining.”

Ms. Gist’s predecessor, Peter J. McWalters, had taken a similar—though more limited—step earlier this year when he told the Providence school system to drop seniority in filling teacher vacancies. ("R.I. Chief Orders Providence to Relax Staffing Rules," March 18, 2009.)

The Providence Teachers Union is challenging that move in federal court.

Ms. Gist’s action comes as school districts around the country tinker with traditional structures that affect teacher quality, such as compensation and evaluation.

So far, though, seniority has been mostly ignored.

For instance, the New Haven, Conn., teacher contract is being held up by union, district, and federal officials as a model effort for collaborative reform. But even in that city’s charter-like “turnaround” schools, teachers who aren’t rehired by their principals or choose to leave after a two-year commitment can put their bid on positions based on seniority.

The Associated Press and the McClatchy News Service contributed to this story.

Vol. 29, Issue 10, Page 17

Published in Print: November 4, 2009, as R.I. Chief Launches Effort to Soften Seniority's Grip
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