Tenure law should not protect ineffective teachers

In Michigan, few issues are more contentious than teacher tenure laws.

For decades, the topic has received a great deal of attention but no meaningful reform. It is past time for the state Legislature to enact changes that will be both effective and fair.

Last month the Michigan Senate approved a bill that would make it easier to terminate ineffective teachers. The legislation was sponsored by Sen. Patty Birkholz, a Saugatuck Republican.

The bill faces an uncertain future in the House when the Legislature returns Wednesday from its holiday break.

Birkholz is a veteran legislator, having been elected to the Senate in 2002 and re-elected in 2006. She currently serves as president pro tem of the Senate, but term limits will prevent her from seeking re-election this year. Birkholz was a member of in the state House from 1996 to 2002, and was briefly assistant majority leader in 1997.

In addition, Birkholz is among the most knowledgeable legislators regarding the tricky and complex teacher tenure statutes.

Birkholz said that many school superintendents in west Michigan were helpful in her crafting of the legislation. Also, she contends that teachers who support the bill are “embarrassed by bad teachers that could demean their profession.”

Let us emphasize that tenure is a time-tested safeguard that prevents firing for an unjust cause. There was a day when teachers could be dismissed arbitrarily, and for the wrong reasons. The formation of labor organizations such as the Michigan Education Association changed that inequity.

Over the years, the MEA has become not only a powerful political force at the state level, but also a major player in contract negotiations with local school boards.

It’s a given that thoughtful parents, and also taxpayers who have no children in school, do not want students being taught by unqualified mentors. It shouldn’t take months or years to get rid of educators who don’t meet the minimum standards.

Having said that, we would emphasize that lawmakers supporting broad changes in the tenure law should take into account the difficulty of determining just who are “bad teachers.”

For example, teachers who toil in venues where students come from difficult socio-economic backgrounds generally face greater challenges than those presented by kids from affluent districts. In other words, the student achievement levels may vary widely, but that isn’t necessarily because of incompetent teachers, most of whom are trying their very best.

“Today’s children will be living in a knowledge-based economy,” Birkholz said. “They deserve to have effective teachers who prepare them well for the challenges they’ll face.”

That’s especially true in our state, which is being hammered by an intractable recession. Further, it continues to be disconcerting that more people are moving out of Michigan than are moving in. Business and industry place a high priority on education when deciding whether to locate or remain in a particular state.

We commend MEA President Iris Salters for her recent remarks pertaining to the tenure issue. “Let me make one thing completely clear,” Salters said. “MEA does not have any interest in protecting bad teachers. It is not in the interest of MEA, our members and particularly Michigan’s students to have chronically under-performing teachers in classrooms.”

We commend Birkholz for her hard work in tackling a difficult challenge, and Salters for her apparent flexibility. Accordingly, we urge House members to act quickly and seriously to help solve a major problem in Michigan’s public educational system.

The state’s future will be determined in part by the caliber of education that tomorrow’s leaders receive in today’s classrooms.