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Missouri senators step back from eliminating tenure for teachers

Tuesday, April 3, 2012 | 9:51 p.m. CDT; updated 10:13 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 3, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri senators temporarily retreated Tuesday from an effort to abolish tenure for public school teachers, but the leading supporter said she is not giving up.

Senators spent much of the day debating legislation to eventually repeal Missouri's teacher tenure laws, but that debate came to halt when a divided chamber approved an amendment to keep tenure in place while a special task force examines teacher pay and effectiveness. Senators approved the amendment 17-15, and the main bill was set aside without coming to a final vote.

Sen. Jane Cunningham, who sponsored the teacher tenure legislation, said it seems clear most of the chamber wants some reforms. She said she plans to rethink how to approach the issue, calling it too important to abandon.

"It was a surprise. It was terribly disappointing," said Cunningham, R-Chesterfield. She added that it seemed her "colleagues in the Senate put government employees ahead of students."

Seven Democrats joined 10 Republicans in supporting the amendment. One Democrat and 14 Republicans opposed it, including Cunningham and the Senate's top two GOP leaders.

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.

Opponents contend tenure has made it too costly and time-consuming to replace teachers who are not performing. Supporters argue that Missouri's tenure law is designed to ensure there is a fair process before teachers are replaced.

Senate Education Committee Chairman David Pearce was the sponsor of the amendment to keep teacher tenure while creating the study task force. Pearce, R-Warrensburg, said he did not want to eliminate teacher tenure on the first day the issue arose on the Senate floor. He called it a "big step."

Numerous states have debated state teacher tenure. The nonpartisan Education Commission of the States said more than a dozen states made changes to their teacher tenure laws as of last August.

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