Teacher tenure in the Kansas public school system is perhaps the chief casualty of the school finance bill that both houses of the Kansas Legislature approved over the weekend and sent to Gov. Sam Brownback.
Under existing law, when a school district wants to terminate a teacher who’s been on the job for three or more years, the district must explain why in writing. The teacher in question has the right to challenge the decision and have a hearing officer review the case.
In what is a clear triumph for conservatives, those rights are being eliminated. Conservatives inserted the provision into a bill whose overriding purpose was to comply with the Kansas Supreme Court’s order to bolster funding for the state’s poorer school districts.
Conservatives have long argued that tenure protects poor teachers and allows teachers who have acquired seniority to merely go through the motions. As a result, they add, students suffer.
There is some validity to this argument. Tenure has, on occasion been abused. Fact is, some teachers are on the job because it is nearly impossible to fire them. And that is indeed a disservice to students and taxpayers.
But those teachers are the clear exception. If Karen Godfrey, president of the Kansas National Education Association, isn’t absolutely right in saying, “You cannot find a more dedicated professional than a teacher,” she’s not far off.
The loss of tenure, not coincidentally, is a setback for KNEA, which not only protects teachers but has been an advocate for better schools and school funding. Weakening KNEA delights many conservatives.
Jeff Glendening, a former Kansas Chamber of Commerce official who is director of the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity, supports tenure’s demise. “We need to make sure that the best teachers are in the classrooms. It’s not about protecting the institutions or the labor union. It’s about protecting our kids.”
Although tenure is sometimes abused, it also has protected teachers from abuse. It has prevented teachers from being let go because a supervisor doesn’t approve of their political views, simply doesn’t like them or wants to make room on the faculty to hire someone they prefer.
Equality Kansas, which also opposed doing away with tenure, understandably worries that removing the job protection that comes with tenure could result in the termination of gay and lesbian teachers regardless of their abilities.
Clearly, the landscape is changing in Kansas public schools. Whether the change is for the better depends in part on whether it is enough for teachers to be outstanding, or even good, or whether their job security also depends on the whims and the biases of their supervisors.