PROVIDENCE — Dropping a bombshell on the teachers’ unions, state Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist ordered school superintendents to abolish the practice of assigning teachers based on how many years they have in the school system.
Gist, who sent a letter to superintendents on Tuesday, is upending tradition and taking on two powerful unions, the National Education Association Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals (RIFT), who together represent 12,000 public school teachers.
On Friday, the unions said they were blindsided by Gist’s announcement, adding that the commissioner made no attempt to confer with labor before going public with the decision.
“We’re going to court,” said Marcia Reback, president of the Federation of Teachers. “I’m startled that there was no conversation with the unions about this. I’m startled there were no public hearings, and I’m startled at the content. This narrows the scope of collective bargaining.”Gist says she has the authority to do away with seniority under the new Basic Education Plan, which the Rhode Island Board of Regents approved in June and which takes effect July 1.
“In my view,” Gist said in a news statement, “no system that bases teacher assignments solely on seniority can comply with this regulation.”
“Our response is that we have authority to set educational policy and to establish rules and regulations that are in the best interest of students,” said Regents Chairman Robert G. Flanders Jr. “To the extent that there are contract provisions that are at odds with the Basic Education Plan, it’s our view that those provisions would be unlawful. If a challenge were to be brought, we would expect to prevail.”
According to the new regulations, districts must select and train only the most highly effective staff, and teacher assignments must be based on student need. The Basic Education Plan requires that each district “shall maintain control of its ability to recruit, hire, manage, evaluate and assign its personnel.”
How much power does the RI Commissioner of Education and Board of Regents have? I guess we'll find out. As it is, I can't tell if this is just audacious posturing, or what. Regardless of what you think of seniority policy, if the state prevails, the fundamental structure of education governance in Rhode Island will change significantly. I suspect that it would make comprehensive revision of RI education law a lot more likely in the near to medium term. If the Regents and Commisioner can, on their own, change regulations and overturn contracts, what's the limit to their power? At that point, it would make more sense to just run the state as one school district, because the the biggest thing they couldn't do is even out inequity between school districts in Rhode Island, which is a far bigger issue than inequity within them.
Also this implies that good teachers should be moved from high achieving schools to low achieving schools. But you and I know that they will never move the best teachers out of high achieving schools on the East Side, Classical or gifted and talented programs. It won't happen.
The actual text of the memo is here.