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 like “Freedom Writers” and “Waiting for Superman,” and advocacy from nonprofits including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Kansas City’s Kaufman Foundation.
Unfortunately, the Kansas Legislature is doing it all wrong.
Consider the following 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.”
The Legislature repealed tenure so quickly that lawmakers do not appear to know what is in their bill. Merrick and allies had to issue a retraction because they had argued that the law will still protect teachers from being fired without cause or an ap-peal. 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 couple of 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 like Mich-elle Rhee, former superinten-dent of the Washington, D.C. schools. Rhee depicts big-city school districts as dysfunc-tional, rigid bureaucracies where strict union contracts defensively protect teachers even at the cost of shooting down innovation.
Public school defenders like scholar Diane Ravitch fight back, using data to show that the biggest problem facing urban schools is the students’ poverty, not unions. Ravitch also argues that today’s fad of judging teachers by their students’ standardized test scores is a poor, 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-run charter school. Unions and their allies counter that the charter schools produce mixed results at best, that district education s improving and that they need a little more time.
Kansas is not Kansas City, Mo. Nor is it Long Beach or New York City, the sites of the true stories on which “Freedom Writers” and “Waiting for Sup-erman” were based. 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 schools are thriving, while rural schools already exist in an anti-union environ-ment, struggling to find money to pay teachers more than subsistence-level sal-aries. These schools are a world away from the massive, intract-able bureaucracies depicted in the movies.
The Legislature’s fix is crude, ill-considered and out of place. Teachers could be fired for failing popular student-athletes or teaching controversial facts about science or human sex-uality. The woes of urban school districts in other states cannot justify what the Legislature did here.
Michael A. Smith is an associate professor of political science at Emporia State University.