COLUMBIA - Teacher seniority would be downplayed in layoff decisions due to budget cuts under a bill advanced Thursday in the South Carolina Senate.

The bill, sent to the full Education Committee on a 3-2 vote, requires districts' "reduction-in-force" policies to consider a teacher's classroom effectiveness as the most important factor in deciding whom to let go. Years of classroom experience could be considered only when breaking a tie between teachers.

The bill, sponsored by GOP Sen. Paul Thurmond of Charleston, requires the guidelines to be part of districts' policies beginning in 2016-17. The timing follows implementation next school year of a statewide system for evaluating teachers based on their performance.

"How long a teacher's been teaching is not an indication of how good they are when they're in front of kids," said George Parker with Students First, an education reform group founded by former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.

"This is simply saying if we have to let teachers go, make sure we've got the best teachers in front of our children," said Parker, a former president of the Washington Teachers' Union.

The state School Boards Association believes the bill is unnecessary since those guidelines mirror its model policy, which most districts followed in adopting their own. The group did not know precisely how many districts copied it. Legislators required districts to approve a policy on layoffs several years ago, amid recession-era budget cuts.

"I'm not sure this is a real issue in South Carolina," said the association's Scott Price. "I'd like to see you leave the system in place."

But a majority of subcommittee members said they want to ensure all districts make decisions that way.

The vote did not follow party lines. The panel's chairman, GOP Sen. Wes Hayes of Rock Hill, voted against it, saying such decisions should be left to local officials.

Jackie Hicks, president of the South Carolina Education Association, called the bill a slap in the face to teachers who have devoted their lives to students and "earned their status as master teachers."

Sen. Luke Rankin disagreed.

"I cannot help but feel we're all looking for the same result here, to encourage innovation and encourage people to get in the profession," said Rankin, R-Conway.