ST. LOUIS — If teachers in Missouri feel as though their job security is under attack, they’re not alone.
Efforts to abolish or chip away at teacher tenure and erode collective bargaining have been popping up across the country, most recently with the filing last week of an initiative petition that would eliminate tenure for new teachers in Missouri.
The petition comes on the heels of a year that saw an unprecedented number of legislative efforts to rewrite teacher tenure laws, according to one national education policy expert.
“Last year was a sea change,” said Kathy Christie, vice president for knowledge and information management with the Education Commission of the States, based in Denver.
The organization tracked 18 state legislatures that had modified some element of their teacher tenure or continuing contract policies. Among the most notable was Idaho, where legislators enacted a bill banning tenure for new teachers and other certified employees.
While some states’ leaders waged intense battles with teachers’ unions, Illinois changed its approach to teacher tenure with less conflict. There, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law a measure that links educators’ tenure, hiring and job security to performance, rather than to seniority. The law makes it easier to remove an educator from the classroom for continuously poor performance.
In Missouri, legislative efforts to alter teacher tenure were not successful last year, nor were they greeted warmly by the teachers union. A bill to end tenure and institute a merit pay system for Missouri’s public school teachers died.
Last week, a Jefferson City attorney revived a key focus of the failed bill by filing an initiative petition aimed at eliminating tenure for new teachers through a constitutional amendment.
“Across the country, people recognize that the current education structure is not working and that having the sole basis for retaining teachers being that they’ve been there the longest is probably not a way to make sure we have the best teachers in the classroom,” said Marc Ellinger, who filed the initiative petition with the Secretary of State’s office on Tuesday.
Chris Guinther, president of the Missouri National Education Association, sees the effort as an unnecessary slam on teachers.
“There is a national effort right now to bash the teaching profession,” she said. “We’ve got thousands and thousands of teachers in our classrooms every day who are doing exactly what they need to do for our students, and for these efforts to eliminate teacher tenure to be so prevalent is really distressing.”
Experts say the increased focus on teacher tenure is owed to a combination of converging factors.
Christie, of the Education Commission of the States, said the movement can partly be attributed to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative, which challenged states to compete for grants to support education reform and innovation in classrooms. Race to the Top arguably has spurred more aggressive scrutiny of teachers and a push for greater accountability in the classroom.
“People were challenged to really push the envelope and address the quality of teaching overall,” Christie said.
Another reason behind the push for tenure reform, Christie said, is continually evolving research on the quality of teachers and instruction.
“It is getting to be kind of a constant drum beat, and legislators have definitely heard that,” she said. “Then, of course, we also had kind of a cadre of governors who were bent on doing some pretty radical things this last year. … It’s like kind of a 100-year storm, all of these things coming together and adding up.”
Dennis Van Roekel, president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, said making tenure a target is a red herring.
“It distorts a discussion that is so needed today,” Van Roekel said. “We as educators do not want ineffective people in the classroom. If they cannot or will not improve, they need to be gone. On the other hand, we do not want good teachers removed for arbitrary reasons.”
Van Roekel, whose organization approved a policy on teacher evaluation and accountability last summer, calls for a solid assessment of teachers’ professional practice that is applied consistently to every educator in a district.
He said the nation’s children would be much better served if reform efforts were more focused on making sure teachers are adequately trained, certified and licensed at the start of their careers instead of targeting them years later.
“Until we start dealing with quality at the front door, instead of saying we want to be able to hire anybody, make a lot of mistakes and then make it easy to get rid of them, we are going the wrong way,” he said.
He pointed to U.S. Department of Education research indicating that 47 percent of teachers leave the field in the first five years of their careers.
“No business in the world could survive with a 50 percent turnover every five years because it costs too much money to train and hire people,” Van Roekel said. “Why in the world would we define success as having to fire a lot of people? That just means you do a lousy job of training and hiring.”
Kate Casas, state director of the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri — a Sinquefield-supported organization that backs policies such as school choice and restructuring tenure — points to what has become a mantra for those who believe in tenure reform.
“There aren’t other jobs where people have indefinite contracts,” said Casas, a former Teach for America instructor in the St. Louis Public Schools. “I see teacher-tenure reform as a way that teachers can … get the respect that they need and deserve because it will allow them to be held accountable, like everybody else.”
But Guinther, Missouri’s NEA president, stresses that the law does, indeed, make tenured teachers accountable.
“If there are bad teachers in the classroom in Missouri, we have a tenure law that does give school districts a way that they can fairly dismiss teachers,” she said, referring to an established hearing process. “It needs some work, but there is a way. For people to say you can’t get rid of bad teachers, that’s admitting that the evaluation process in that building or in that district is not working.”
With education reform at the forefront in Missouri and nationally, the debate over teacher tenure appears far from over.
Said Christie: “I expect to see a whole other batch of states who are looking at it.”