Saturday, June 21, 2014

Easier to fire teachers?

Some say it ought to be easier to fire teachers.

Indeed, much time and money could be saved if governments didn’t have to wrestle with that pesky thing called “due process.” How much quicker the Environmental Protection Agency could make new rules? Consider how much money could be saved if criminals didn’t have due process. When local governments want to build on private property, it’s due process that takes time and costs more money.

A choir of “reformers” want to make it easier to fire teachers. A California court reignited the debate over whether teachers should be able to earn tenure when it held that state’s law unconstitutional. It’s not been that long since the Wyoming state senate narrowly defeated legislation repealing our tenure law.

What is “tenure”? Plain and simple it’s due process. Tenure is an assurance that once a teacher has passed a probationary period, he or she cannot be fired without cause. That probationary period in Wyoming is three years. After that, teachers are entitled to know the reasons for which the employer wants to deprive them of their livelihood. The employer must have actual evidence of inadequacy. The targeted teacher is entitled to a fair hearing.

Some think that asks too much of school boards. Some believe it should be as easy to fire someone in the schools as it is in much of the private sector. Employers in most private, non-union employment work “at-will.” They can be fired without notice and without cause. Poof. Your career and your livelihood can go up in smoke and you have no recourse.

Which of those two options sounds un-American to you?

There is no evidence that making firing easier will improve educational outcomes. Does anyone really think that eliminating due process will attract good people to the profession? It was education reformers decades ago that determined job-security through tenure was a necessary reform to lure good people into low paying teaching jobs.

Today’s “reformers” have made the teaching profession difficult enough with their other “reforms.” Now some want to add job-insecurity to the mix. Of course blaming teachers and making it easier to get rid of them relieves decision makers of their responsibility to focus on building teacher capacity.

Eliminating due process assumes that those who have the power to deprive others of their livelihoods are competent and can be relied on to act in good faith. That is not always a reasonable assumption.

Some years ago, a non-tenured teacher in Converse County, Wyoming was fired. Without tenure the teacher had no recourse but the courts. She explained to the judge that she had been fired for complying with state law. The law with which she complied required her to report child abuse. She did. The alleged perpetrator made trouble for the teacher. The school board fired her. The court agreed with the school board. Without the due process protections of tenure, she lost her career because she complied with the law and sought to protect a child.

Perhaps too many people are too old to remember Sydney Spiegel. Sydney was a Cheyenne teacher, one of the best. But he was an outspoken opponent of the war in Viet Nam and other things. The Laramie County School District No. 1 board of trustees decided to rid themselves of Mr. Spiegel. But Sydney had tenure, which entitled him to due process. Eventually that process brought the school board and Spiegel before the Wyoming Supreme Court. They found the teacher’s rights had been violated and Sydney got his job back with back pay.

That case deterred school boards in Wyoming from acting capriciously in a great many future cases.

The fact is that it is not impossible to fire bad teachers. The only hurdles are that the school board must have good reasons to do so and be able to back them up in front of an independent hearing officer with evidence. Yes, it takes time and effort. But protecting the rights of Americans always has.

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