JEFFERSON CITY — Ending tenure for Missouri public school teachers could be among the most contentious topics debated this year by lawmakers looking at revamping the state's education system.
The chairman of the House education committee said he is considering legislation to phase out tenure over several decades. The issue also could appear on the November ballot if supporters of a newly filed initiative petition gather enough signatures.
Missouri teachers generally receive tenure after teaching in a district for five years. With tenure, they can be dismissed for immoral conduct; incompetency, inefficiency or insubordination; willful or persistent violation of the state's school laws or regulations; excessive absences; or conviction of certain felonies. Teachers also can be removed if they have a physical or mental condition that makes them unfit to instruct children.
School districts seeking to remove a tenured teacher must provide written charges specifying the grounds for dismissal and offer a hearing.
The process has triggered complaints that firing a teacher is so expensive and cumbersome that it discourages school boards from trying and thereby protects subpar workers. Critics contend eliminating or curbing tenure would help school districts manage their staff and improve some classrooms.
Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, the chairman of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, plans to file legislation, perhaps within the week, with changes to teacher tenure and evaluations. His bill also would remove prohibitions on merit pay and would require performance be considered when layoffs are required.
Dieckhaus, R-Washington, said tenure gives teachers protection not available to most Missouri workers.
"The consequence is that there are times when we have teachers who are permitted to stay longer than we would prefer," he said, adding that he is considering legislation to abolish it altogether.
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon defended Missouri's current teacher tenure policies, saying that he does not think the time is right for "radical departures from where we've been in the past."
Teacher unions contend Missouri's tenure law gives administrators several years to evaluate performance and determine whether someone should become a permanent teacher. If teachers can't handle their duties, they still can be removed as long as due process requirements are followed, they add.
Todd Fuller, a spokesman for the Missouri State Teachers Association, said it was irresponsible for administrators to blame tenure for a failure to deal with poor performance and the push to overhaul it seemed fueled by misunderstanding.
"I think that people look at the stereotype of what tenure is and the stereotype is a professor sitting in his or her ivory tower, untouchable," Fuller said. "That's not the case in Missouri for a public school teacher. A public school teacher is scrutinized every single year."
Eliminating tenure could prompt some good teachers to move to nearby states offering more protection, said Chris Guinther, the president of the Missouri National Education Association. Guinther, who is a special education teacher on leave, said educators must be able to advocate on behalf of students to administrators without fear of reprisal. She said it is harder to do for a teacher who does not yet have tenure.
"We've got to be given the protection that we need to give those kids the quality education that they need," Guinther said.
Changes to Missouri's teacher tenure also could come through the ballot box. A proposed initiative petition filed last week would bar school districts from entering into new contracts with teachers for a term of more than three years. Schools also could not get public funding if seniority played a role in determining whether to fire or promote teachers.
Many states have limited the scope of teacher tenure in what an official for one national education group called a "sea change." The Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan organization based in Colorado, said 18 state legislatures had made changes to teacher tenure as of last August. Among those, Idaho is phasing it out.
The commission said teacher tenure first was enacted in New Jersey about 85 years ago because of nepotism, political favoritism and arbitrary dismissals.
The Missouri School Boards' Association favors a move away from teacher tenure to annual or multi-year contracts for staff. It contends more flexibility would help with managing personnel and ensuring every classroom has a quality teacher.