Pennsylvania public schools would have wider latitude to furlough employees during tough economic times and would not have to start with the least senior workers under proposals that were debated Tuesday in the state Capitol.
The House Education Committee gathered input from the school boards' association, the state's largest teacher union and others about three legislative proposals. A committee vote could occur as early as next month.
Carolyn Dumaresq, Gov. Tom Corbett's acting secretary of education, told lawmakers the administration supports allowing economic furloughs as well as replacing seniority rules with a system that protects from furloughs those teachers who are ranked as the most effective in the classroom.
"If we are truly committed to graduating students who are college and workforce ready, then we need to ensure that we have a strong teaching staff, teachers whose performance reflect a focus on student achievement," Dumaresq said.
The state does not currently allow economic furloughs of instructional staff unless enrollment has fallen substantially, schools are consolidated or reorganized, or programs are cut because too few students take certain classes or educational standards have changed.
Cost-cutting over the past three years resulted in the loss of thousands of teaching jobs, and school expert say some schools have been forced to eliminate entire programs, such as foreign languages, because of limits on economic layoffs.
The head of the Pennsylvania State Education Association union, Michael Crossey, said the proposals could prompt schools to target high-salaried veterans for layoffs. He said the current system to fire bad teachers works well.
"An educator's experience in pedagogical skills and navigating the classroom environment matters," Crossey said. "And yet, there appears to be an assumption by some that experience is a liability instead of an asset."
Tina Viletto, president of the Cheltenham Township School Board, said current restrictions on furloughs can leave little alternative to the elimination of popular programs.
"We only have the choice to attack the arts, attack music, attack those areas that really do give a well-rounded breadth of knowledge and information," Viletto said.
The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials told the committee that about one-third of the nearly 23,000 school district jobs lost since 2009-10 have come from classroom instructional staff. The organization was generally supportive of the proposed changes, but only endorsed two of the competing bills.
Education Chairman Paul Clymer, R-Bucks, said after the hearing that he hoped to meld the three proposals into something that a majority can support. A similar bill did not get out of committee during the last legislative session.