DAVID ROSMAN: Senate bill is bad for Missouri teachers, students

Wednesday, May 16, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:11 a.m. CDT, Thursday, May 17, 2012

*Robert Townsend is the late Avis Rent-a-Car CEO. An earlier version of this article had the wrong name.

Ah, the last few days of Missouri’s legislative session. Most of the mainline bills have been finalized. Yes, there are only a few this year, but most have run their course.

The keyword here is “most.” There is one bill still pending that is very worrisome for our state’s public school system, though this bill addresses only the St. Louis Public Schools.

HB 1526/SB 601 “allows teachers in the St. Louis City School District who have a permanent appointment to be removed based on incompetency.” It also reduces the time between notification of a hearing for dismissal and the hearing itself.

As a college instructor and having taught high school, I have my own qualms concerning tenure and the competent instructors. In post-secondary institutions, competency is measured through a number of factors including a student satisfaction survey, usually given in the last weeks of the term, and a review of grades awarded — the latter looking for grade inflation or deflation.

SB 601 would do two things. First, the bill would reduce the time between notification of a pending hearing for dismissal to the hearing itself from one semester to 30 days. Other than the various teacher unions rejecting such a change in support of tenure, this appears to be good for the teacher and the school, preventing anxiety from being displaced into the classroom for a longer period. I know some will disagree.

Second, the bill will insert “incompetence” as a reason for teacher dismissal, tenured or probation. On the surface this does not seem too bad; however, our legislators, as is their usual manner, left out something important — a working definition of “incompetence.”

What does “incompetence” mean? Does “incompetence” include the inability of the teacher to enlist the student’s parents as part of the student’s support system? Does it include the number of nonnative speaking students or students with conditions that limit their learning in the classroom? How about poverty? These and more are factors concerning a child’s ability to learn and the achievements in a classroom.

Without a base definition, a school district may decide that “incompetence” includes the refusal to discuss religious beliefs in a science class or science in contemporary religion. “Incompetence” may include a thoughtful and pointed discussion on bullying as it concerns a student’s sexual orientation.

Can “incompetence” extend to one’s theistic or atheistic beliefs? How about teacher’s sexual orientation or living arrangements?

There are seemingly an unlimited number of sectarian and secular reasons for the unfair dismissal of a teacher that may be permitted under the catch-all term “incompetence.”

This tough question can be eased if our legislators were brave enough to write in a definition, but they are not.

There is a slippery slope argument here as well, one that has been well greased. If a bill concerning a specific school district’s rule on tenure is to be legislatively changed, what prevents these changes from going statewide? We all are aware of school districts in Missouri that would use this opportunity to dismiss employees for their religious, sexual or scientific beliefs, keeping discrimination under the radar. This may cause an already fractured learning competency of the students in Missouri to deepen to an abyss.

By focusing on only one factor, a teacher’s undefined “competency,” with so many other factors to consider, this bill will prove to be unfair to teachers and students alike.

Robert Townsend*, the late CEO of Avis Rent a Car, wrote that if you really want to know what is wrong with a system, ask those on the front lines. I doubt that the members of the state House or Senate have taken the time to speak to the teachers on the front line. I doubt some legislators have read their letters.

These are the reasons to urge our state senators to vote no on SB 601 and for the governor to veto the bill. It is not fair for the students, not fair for the employees and not fair for the future of Missouri.

David Rosman is an editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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