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Missouri legislators to consider changes to teacher tenure

Saturday, January 21, 2012 | 3:47 p.m. CST

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.


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Comments

Daniel Jordan Jordan January 22, 2012 | 9:36 a.m.

Low pay and no job security.
That's how much we value our teachers!

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 22, 2012 | 10:23 a.m.

Daniel: The problem isn't the "value" we ascribe.

The problem is that too many people can and want to do the job.

(Report Comment)
Daniel Jordan Jordan January 22, 2012 | 12:28 p.m.

Michael: We can definitely reduce the surplus of meritorious applicants by offering low pay and no job security.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 22, 2012 | 2:29 p.m.

Daniel:

OR, make it more difficult to train as a teacher (higher college entry standards), make it more difficult to graduate as a teacher (higher college courses/standards), and make it more difficult to remain as a teacher (harder evaluations, periodic testing). Only by reducing the number of people willing and able to do ANY job, including teaching, will you increase demand and, therefore, pay.

Your comment "We can definitely reduce the surplus of meritorious applicants by offering low pay and no job security" flies in the face of job reality.

Disclosure: One of my daughters teaches 4th grade in another school district. I am in favor of increasing teacher pay substantially.....but only by selecting individual teachers based upon criteria noted above.

Increased pay is a function of high demand for a high-value job with a reduced number of applicants. There are good reasons why doctors, engineers, great speakers, CEOs, attorneys, etc., make big bucks...to wit: High demand, high job value, and too many people who say, "Oh, that's too hard!" Those with the guts to stay the course are the ones who get hired plus the big bucks in such situations.

To many people do not understand this, which is why they are unsatisfied with their own pay.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 22, 2012 | 2:33 p.m.

Besides, I can see no reason why teachers should have any greater job security than the rest of us Joe and Jane Schmos out here.

I can understand a good argument for tenure at college/university levels. In fact, depending upon the day, I can argue either side of that particular issue and change my own mind.

But K-12?

No.

(Report Comment)
Daniel Jordan Jordan January 22, 2012 | 8:36 p.m.

Michael:

If I understand correctly, you're suggesting higher teacher certification standards, reducing the pool of applicants, making each one more valuable. Then those who are truly devoted would see through the qualification process and find their reward at the other end. Sounds good, but here's my reservation: it's government work.

Will a school district pay enough to make up for the higher price of admission? While a for-profit enterprise will go out of business if it fails to attract and retain workers good enough to make its product, government does not go out of business. It can fail indefinitely as we have seen in the St. Louis and KC school districts.

Government seldom pays market rates, nor should it if it can find a cheaper way to attract and retain qualified workers. That is to say, something to make up for the low pay, like insurance, a pension, or job security. We can pay people less in cash if we give them something to make up the difference.

Offering termination for cause instead of at will, which is all tenure means, is inexpensive for government but meaningful for the teacher. It also protects the system as a whole from patronage, like the State merit system. School districts are political entities, after all, and should not be run like fiefdoms.

The reason for tenure in higher ed are different though the concept is under attack there, too.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 22, 2012 | 10:50 p.m.

Daniel: An absolutely excellent response. I hope I'm up to the task with mine.

(1) Your first paragraph is spot on regarding my thoughts on the matter.

(2) When it comes to my current voting pattern, I am in a tax revolt. The reason is that I do not support throwing more money at a worsening problem, i.e., doing the same thing more expensively. As a businessman, I know that the proper response in such situations is to change direction. Hence, I'm throwing out different scenarios/actions that match my past behaviors in business.

(3) I am willing/able to pay more taxes towards our schools, particularly teachers' salaries, and have been for many years (a decade-or-so). However, without dramatic changes in our educational system, my vote remains a "no" for now.

(4) Your point about government *not* being business is a good one. Perhaps it should be run more like one. In this case, I'd like to point out that teachers currently have tenure...this "make up the difference" thingie you mention...yet most of what we hear still concerns inadequate salaries. INO, teachers already have what you advocate, yet they remain underpaid and unhappy.

(5) On these pages in past posts, I've outlined many things I think teachers/principals should have in their arsenal. Without going into detail again, my general strategy is to give more local authority re: curriculum, goals, pay, and especially authority. An excellent teacher is perfectly capable of identifying who is disrupting others in a class, and his/her say-so should be honored. Except in the most egregious acts, schools, principals, and teachers should be immune from legal actions when it comes to discipline. I want no federal money in our schools. I also am pro-choice when it comes to which school to attend. That means I love competition when it comes to school choice and the hiring of teachers. I want neighborhoods/parents to compete with one another for the very best.

I'm running out of room, so I'll quit there.

(Report Comment)

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