Teacher tenure petition
5:07 pm
Mon May 5, 2014

Teachers Unions Gear Up To Oppose Proposals On Hiring, Firing

An initiative petition to change the rules under which Missouri educators can be hired and fired hasn’t been certified for the ballot yet, but teachers unions already have their battle lines drawn.

Credit comedy nose | Flickr

One day after a coalition calling itself Teach Great turned in more than 275,000 petition signatures from around the state to the Secretary of State, spokesmen for the unions said the effort misrepresents what it is trying to do and would be anything but great for Missouri teachers.

“If you look at the 522 school districts in the state of Missouri,” said Mark Jones of the Missouri-National Education Association, “we have a handful that have real problems, and this amendment will not solve any of them. Instead, it will create a one-size-fits-all plan and program that treats children like they’re widgets coming off an assembly line.

“That’s not what we need for our public schools. We need to invest in our schools, fully fund them, which the legislature has failed to do now for over a decade, and ensure that our teachers and our parents have the resources that they need to help every child achieve.”

Added Mike Wood of the Missouri State Teachers Association:

“I think the voters are going to realize this is not good policy for students, it’s not good policy for teachers and it’s not good policy for taxpayers.”

But Kate Casas of the Children’s Education Council of Missouri, which backs the measure, says it will help all school districts, even ones like Normandy that had to lay off 100 teachers at mid-year to ease its budget crunch.

She said superintendent Ty McNichols “says he had very little say in which of those 100 teachers were laid off. If had had the ability to not use senior and instead use an objective evaluation tool, like the initiative petition would have allowed, he would have been able to make those decisions based on who were the most effective teachers.”

The proposed constitutional amendment, which was first filed with the state in March 2013, does not include the word “tenure” in its text, but that is the issue as far as educators are concerned. As detailed on the Teach Great website, the first line of the amendment says that all teachers would become “at will employees.” Their contracts could not last longer than three years.

Starting on July 1, 2015, public school districts in Missouri would have to have “a standards based performance evaluation system” approved by the state board of education.  The majority of the system would have to rely on “quantifiable student performance data” – generally considered to be scores on standardized tests – that would determine whether a teacher is promoted, retained or let go in the event of a reduction in the size of the staff. The data would also be used in determining teacher salaries.

In a statement, Teach Great spokesman Marc Ellinger called the proposed changes “a huge step toward meaningful education reform in the State of Missouri. By signing the petition to place this initiative on the ballot, more than 275,900 voters showed interest in giving all Missouri kids access to a high-quality education.”

The group’s website said the measure would eliminate what it called “the unfair ‘last-in-first-out’ rule, which often means that effective teachers are let go, while ineffective teachers stay.”

The group, which is largely funded by Rex Sinquefield, said it submitted 100,000 more signatures than required to put the issue on the November ballot this year. A lawsuit trying to block the initiative process had been dismissed earlier. The next step in the process is to have the signatures certified by the secretary of state’s office.

Help or hindrance for teachers?

To opponents of the proposal, the fact that Sinquefield is behind the petition drive signals what Jones called an effort to place a special interest agenda in the state constitution. He said Sinquefield “has been hostile to public education from day one.”

Mark Jones
Credit provided

With teachers becoming at-will employees, he added, the employment protections that tenure provides will disappear.

“Really what that does it make it harder for an educator to be an advocate for their students,” Jones said. “Now they have to worry about political repercussions or standing up to their administrator in their school when they think the best interest of the child is not occurring. That’s the protection that’s going to be removed by this amendment.”

Wood said that the requirement that data be the main part of a teacher’s evaluation will result in more standardized testing, which he said is not good policy for students, teachers or parents.

“It’s not good policy for the students,” Wood said, “because under this measure, students are going to be spending an inordinate amount of time taking standardized testing. I think we’ve seen the pendulum start to swing on standardized testing, where I think parents and teachers and students all would rather be learning than taking standardized tests.

Mike Wood
Credit provided

“As far as teachers, we know that there are better ways to evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher than a single standardized test taken on a single day by their students. And for the taxpayers, they’re going to have to foot the bill to come up with these additional tests and by some estimations, it will be hundreds of millions of dollars throughout the state of Missouri that will be used to create more standardized testing.”

Paul Morris, a former teacher who is on the Ferguson-Florissant School Board, was one of four plaintiffs who filed suit in an unsuccessful effort to block the petition. He said Monday that “there’s no reason to get rid of the teacher tenure law. That just opens up a whole can of worms.”

Contrary to what people often say about tenure, Morris added, “it does not protect bad teachers. Once an administration does its paperwork, they can fire anybody.”

Not untested or unproven

But Casas, whose group is largely funded by Sinquefield, says that the process outlined in the proposed amendment is not untested or unproven but is already used in several states, including Tennessee, Louisiana and Indiana. She said a study from Washington, D.C., showed that using student test scores to measure growth resulted in strong academic achievement.

Kate Casas
Credit provided

She disagreed that the measure amounts to what some have called a “war on teachers.”

“I think that is a misguided phrase about what we’re trying to do,” Casas said. “I think because we know now about how to evaluate teachers objectively, we should be using that as a way to evaluate teachers and make decisions on personnel.”

The real purpose of using test scores, she added, would be to give support to teachers who have been effective and give help to those who have not. Contrary to what unions say, it’s not designed to undermine protections for teachers’ jobs.

“Everyone is focusing on teachers being fired,” Casas said. “In reality, I don’t think this is actually what this is about. I think there will be a very, very small number. In other states that have done this, you see 4 percent, 3 percent of teachers rated in effective….

This notion that there is a large number of ineffective teachers out there I think is just wrong, and we’re looking to use the latest information we have about how best to evaluate certified educators.”