House bill gives superintendents more power to fire teachers

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / December 30, 2009

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The Massachusetts House of Representatives appears poised to consider an overhaul of the state’s most troubled schools next week, as members take up a bill that could represent a major setback for teachers unions.

The proposed bill would give superintendents extraordinary powers to ignore teacher contract provisions in firing teachers for good cause at underperforming schools.

It would also allow superintendents to impose changes in workplace rules, such as extending the school day, at those schools if negotiations break down, key House leaders said in a telephone briefing yesterday.

Unlike a Senate version approved last month, the House bill does not establish an arbitration process for teachers to appeal those changes by superintendents.

The state’s teachers unions have been aggressively lobbying the Legislature for inclusion of an appeals process, concerned that superintendents might make decisions based on politics, rather than merit.

In another potential loss for teachers unions, the House version ensures the proliferation of charter schools, nearly all of which employ nonunion teachers, in school districts that rank in the bottom 10 percent for MCAS scores, such as Boston.

By contrast, a last-minute amendment to the Senate version last month essentially blocked charter school expansion in Boston and many other urban districts by creating a second threshold for the opening of more charter schools.

House leaders say that superintendents need greater freedom from teacher contracts to overhaul schools with persistently low test scores. Allowing teachers to appeal every decision, they say, could impede a quick turnaround of schools, leaving student academic growth in jeopardy.

Overhauling the state’s most troubled schools is a cornerstone of Governor Deval Patrick’s education agenda and has been more recently pushed by President Obama.

States that take more aggressive steps in turning around low-performing schools and opening more charter schools, which are intended to provide innovative educational opportunities for children, could be eligible for hundreds of millions of dollars in additional federal education aid.

“We don’t intend to solve all the world’s problems with this bill, but we will tackle a big chunk of them,’’ said Representative Charles A. Murphy, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

The committee, which is overseeing the drafting of the bill, sent out a version to committee members yesterday for a vote. If the majority approves it, the bill will go to the full House next week.

The Legislature is under a tight deadline to approve a bill because states must submit applications for the first round of federal funding by mid-January.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, declined to comment yesterday because leaders had not yet received a copy of the bill.

Leaders of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, which represents many unions in urban systems, could not be reached for comment.

The unions did score one major victory in the House bill regarding the opening of so-called Horace Mann schools, which are charter schools operated by a school district, rather than an independent entity.

The House bill does not include a controversial Senate provision that would have enabled school districts to open in-district charter schools without union approval, which would have been a notable departure from current law.

If the House approves the bill next week, it would be sent to a conference committee to resolve differences in the Senate version.

Representative Martha M. Walz, cochairwoman of the Joint Committee on Education, said yesterday that she supports the House bill.

“This bill is intended to disrupt the status quo so we can turn around these underperforming schools,’’ Walz said.