WHAT OTHERS SAY: Rush to cut tenure wrong way to try to improve schools

Tuesday, April 10, 2012 | 5:32 p.m. CDT

A truly amazing thing happened in the Missouri legislature last week: Democrats mattered.

The joke in the Capitol is that Senate Democrats caucus in a phone booth. There are but eight Democrats in the 34-member Senate, not even enough to uphold a veto if GOP senators vote in lockstep.

But in an important vote on a bad teacher tenure bill on Tuesday, Democrats formed a coalition with a handful of Republicans to block a plan by Chesterfield Republican Sen. Jane Cunningham to abruptly erase job protections for public school teachers.

Ms. Cunningham doesn't think much of those teachers. Witness what she said about them after her bill was modified by an amendment sponsored by Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg. The amendment called on lawmakers to study teacher effectiveness before gutting job protections.

"What I saw today is nothing new," Ms. Cunningham said. "It's business as usual. It's always putting government personnel above kids. It's not putting kids at the back of the bus; it's putting them under the bus and running over them."

Right. That's what teachers do.

To Ms. Cunningham, teachers are mere "government personnel." At least they're not "union thugs," an epithet that some Republicans use.

That kind of offensive language makes debating education reform measures impossible.

Most Missouri politicians of both major parties realize that, even though there are some poor performers, most teachers are a major asset.

The 17-15 vote for Mr. Pearce's amendment sends an important message to Ms. Cunningham, her key financial supporter, St. Louis mega-millionaire Rex Sinquefield, and the president pro tem of the Senate, Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter: Stop treating public schools as a punching bag.

Mr. Pearce is the chairman of the education committee. He's earned the respect of Democrats and Republicans alike, as well as teachers and reformers. He's studied the issues. He listens carefully to all sides of the debate. He doesn't demonize his opponents.

"I'm married to a teacher," Mr. Pearce told us. "When I go home, and when many of my rural colleagues go home, we see teachers at the grocery store, at the ballpark. They're our constituents."

So why did Mr. Mayer hijack the traditional process and send the key education bills to Ms. Cunningham's committee? Because the Republican leadership, ignoring many of its members, wanted to use serious school accreditation issues in St. Louis and Kansas City and problems with the funding formula for K-12 schools as leverage to get rid of teacher tenure and pass a tax-credit voucher scheme that would help private schools.

By insulting teachers instead of working with them, reform proponents will get nothing instead of incremental change, as has happened in Illinois, New York, Colorado and in other places where a solution-based approach trumped a politically charged one.

There is room in the public school debate for making changes to tenure, allowing and encouraging merit pay, producing accountable charter schools and creating better testing programs. But to ram through such measures without careful consideration for what would and wouldn't work is the height of irresponsibility.

All across the country, the successful model of reform involves collaboration, not confrontation.

Missouri's Republican leadership refuses to follow that model. On Thursday, Ms. Cunningham brought up her tenure proposal again. This time it had been modified to make teachers wait until they've been teaching 10 years to qualify for tenure. This time the Senate shoved Mr. Pearce's study aside and gave first-round approval to Ms. Cunningham's watered-down bill.

There is no evidence, no reputable study showing that such a move would do anything to improve education for a single Missouri child.

Because the tenure bill didn't actually go through the education committee, "it hadn't been vetted," Mr. Pearce noted. How would the bill affect recruiting new teachers or retaining current ones? What would be the effect of having the longest time required in the nation before tenure could be obtained?

These are the questions Mr. Pearce and his colleagues would have asked in a committee hearing.

They didn't get one because Ms. Cunningham and her ilk would rather throw teachers under the bus than talk to them.

All the Missouri Senate did on Thursday was to put "government personnel" in their place.

Mission accomplished.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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