JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers moved Thursday to overhaul the state's tenure system for public school teachers, requiring them to work longer before qualifying for the protections.
Senators gave first-round approval Thursday to legislation that generally would require teachers to spend a decade in a school district before they would become tenured — that's twice as long as what Missouri currently requires. Senators earlier this week considered simply abolishing teacher tenure but stepped back from that effort after a divided chamber narrowly approved an amendment that would have kept tenure in place while a special task force examined teacher pay and effectiveness.
Supporters of overhauling teacher tenure returned Thursday with a new proposal requiring teachers to wait longer before qualifying for tenure. The longer wait would apply only to Missouri teachers who do not have tenure by July 2013, when the measure would take effect. Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey said he saw the new proposal as a possible compromise.
"My concern with tenure is that we basically give a lifetime job to someone that no one else gets," said Dempsey, R-St. Charles. "That would be a detriment to have that teacher improve to be the best that they can be."
Opponents of tenure contend that it makes replacing a poor teacher too costly and time-consuming.
Teachers who have tenure 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. They 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.
Although senators endorsed the teacher tenure legislation, few seemed entirely satisfied.
Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, who supports eliminating tenure, said the measure was watered down and does "absolutely nothing." He said Republicans had failed to complete one of their priorities.
Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-St. Louis County, sought to excuse from the longer tenure requirement any teacher who currently is working — even those without tenure when the legislation would take effect. That proposal was defeated. Chappelle-Nadal said Senate Democrats oppose changes to the tenure law.
Teacher unions said tenure protections are important to attract skilled teachers and allow them to advocate for their students. The Missouri State Teachers Association and the Missouri National Education Association said the tenure measure would hurt education.
"At a time when we're having really big challenges and problems in public education, I find it troubling that our Senate has taken this much time to debate something that is not proven to help children," said Chris Guinther, president of the Missouri National Education Association.
The Senate teacher tenure legislation still needs another vote before moving to the House, where Republicans said they were happy to consider the measure.
The Missouri House on Thursday narrowly approved legislation intended to help students avoid lengthy bus rides by allowing them to attend the school closest to them — even if it is located in a different district.
Students could attend a school in a different district if they live at least 10 miles from their school and a building in another district is at least 5 miles closer. Parents would need to request the school transfer, and it could be rejected if classrooms already are full. The state education commissioner already has authority to assign students to a different school district when there are transportation problems, but it is not required.
Several lawmakers voiced fears about how the transfers could affect school districts. The Missouri School Boards' Association said it was concerned loosening school residency requirements could end up as a step toward open enrollment.
Sponsoring Rep. Rodney Schad said some children spend more than an hour on a school bus to get to their classes and another hour to get home. He said that is lost time.
"Do we want to take care of some kids, or do we want to take care of the school administrators?" said Schad, R-Versailles.