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Abolition of teacher tenure out of place

4/20/2014

Earlier this month, the Kansas Legislature jumped into a heated, national debate: teacher tenure. Challenging tenure and the unions that defend it has been the subject of academic research, recent books, popular films such as "Freedom Writers" and "Waiting for Superman," and advocacy from nonprofits including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Kansas City's Kauffman Foundation.

Earlier this month, the Kansas Legislature jumped into a heated, national debate: teacher tenure. Challenging tenure and the unions that defend it has been the subject of academic research, recent books, popular films such as "Freedom Writers" and "Waiting for Superman," and advocacy from nonprofits including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Kansas City's Kauffman Foundation.

Unfortunately, the Kansas Legislature is doing it all wrong.

Consider the following quote from a recent Wichita Eagle story: "The office of House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, conceded it had given Republican lawmakers and the news media misinformation in a statement claiming to clear up misinformation surrounding the controversial bill."

Say what?

The Legislature repealed tenure so quickly, they do not appear to know what is in their own bill. Merrick and allies had to issue a retraction, because they had argued the law still will protect teachers from being fired without cause or appeal. Turns out, they were wrong. Tenure repeal was one of several amendments added to a school-funding bill during two days of frantic, late-night sessions a few weeks ago.

No question, tenure reform is a hot topic in states with large, high-poverty, big-city districts. Filmmakers have popularized anti-union advocates such as Michelle Rhee, former superintendent of Washington, D.C., schools. Like the movies, Rhee depicts big-city school districts as dysfunctional, rigid bureaucracies, where strict union contracts defensively protect teachers, even at the cost of shooting down innovation. Public school defenders such as scholar Diane Ravitch fight back, using data to show the biggest problem facing urban schools is the students' poverty, not unions. Ravitch also argues today's fad of judging teachers by their students' standardized test scores is a poor and ineffective way to assess good teaching.

The whole debate touches our border. Some want the state of Missouri to take over the Kansas City schools, allow students to transfer to neighboring districts in the state -- and even make every school in the district a privately managed charter school. Unions and their allies counter the charter schools produce mixed results at best, that the district is improving and they need a little more time.

That said, Kansas is not Kansas City, Mo. Nor is not Long Beach, Calif., or New York City, the sites of the true stories behind "Freedom Writers" and "Waiting for Superman," respectively.

I have several friends who teach in big-city schools. Many advocate tenure reform and remain wary of unions. Yet, most Kansas students attend either suburban or rural schools.

Many suburban ones are thriving, while rural schools already exist in an anti-union environment, struggling just to find money to pay teachers more than subsistence-level salaries. They are a world away from the massive, intractable bureaucracies depicted in the movies.

The Legislature's fix is crude, ill-considered and out of place. If the governor signs the bill, teachers could be fired for failing popular student-athletes, or teaching controversial -- but true -- facts about science or human sexuality. The woes of urban school districts in other states cannot justify what the Legislature did here.

Michael A. Smith is associate professor of political science at Emporia State University.

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