Government & Politics

Kansas bill renews debate about how easy it should be to fire teachers

Even the folks who fire teachers in Kansas aren’t sure what to make of a law change that would make firing teachers easier.

For generations, the state promised that before getting canned teachers could get an appeal. If a hearing officer disagreed with the teacher’s bosses, the instructor stayed in the classroom.

In eleventh-hour logrolling in the Legislature, that tenure-lite protection was wiped out by lawmakers venting the conviction that such safeguards intended to protect teachers from ax-grinding bosses serve mostly to coddle the lazy and incompetent.

The Kansas Association of School Boards — representing the people who hire and fire teachers — might be expected to embrace the change.

Not entirely.

The organization issued a statement last week that it “supports changes in the due process system to restore more authority to local school boards to ensure effectiveness of their employees.” But, the statement continues, “the bill goes further than the positions adopted” by the group.

Teachers unions responded much more emphatically, and angrily.

“It’s

not

too damn hard to fire a teacher,” said Marcus Baltzell, the director of communications for the Kansas National Education Association. “It’s just that the teacher has a redress of due process, a hearing officer, (a chance to say) ‘Here’s my take. Here’s what we’ve done to address the area of concern, and I believe this is unfair.’ 

Lawmakers who backed the change — it becomes law if Gov. Sam Brownback signs it — argued that dumping dead weight from the faculty has become harder than it ought to be.

“I don’t like tenure. I never have,” said Rep. Ward Cassidy, a Republican from northwest Kansas who worked as a high school principal for 20 years. “Good principals have a whole lot of other things to do besides going through all you need to fire a teacher.”

The Legislature’s provocative move puts flame to the tinder of conflict between teachers unions and conservatives. The still-developing reaction is complicated by confusion about whether existing union contracts temporarily extend tenure or how principals will now go after underperformers.

Kansas would be far from alone if it shaves away teacher job protection. Florida, North Carolina and the District of Columbia in recent years moved to reduce or eliminate tenure in public schools. Missouri teachers are probationary for five years before firing them becomes more difficult.

Conservatives see special job protection as a chief reason why Johnny can’t keep pace with peers in Norway or Japan. They see Kansas’ current rules as a troublesome hurdle for weeding out teachers who substitute videos for lesson plans or who otherwise coast through the classroom for years.

Teachers groups counter that safeguards for experienced teachers reflect the particular demands of the job. Might not a teacher hesitate to give a tough grade to the star quarterback, they ask, without job protection? Would a teacher vulnerable to losing a livelihood report suspicions of child abuse, something required of them by law, if the suspect parent sat on the school board?

Neither argument is new. The change is. And sudden.

Critics note that the provision was bargained into a school funding bill in the last days before lawmakers left Topeka for their annual spring break. The change had none of the usual committee hearings that seek to explore the merits, or flaws, in proposed new laws.

Yet it would overturn a system that’s governed the dismissal of teachers in Kansas for more than half a century.

Neither the school boards organization nor the Kansas School Superintendents Association — two groups whose memberships gain leverage from the bill — supported such an abrupt change. Both had put state funding for schools as a much higher priority.

While they broadly back some measure that would increase their freedom to fire failing teachers, they’d preferred to negotiate terms with unions.

“Our superintendents and principals came up through the ranks with these due process procedures in play. This is all they’ve ever worked with,” said Cheryl Semmel, the executive director of the Kansas School Superintendents Association. “We were caught a little by surprise.”

Brownback has praised the Legislature for its changes to school financing, but he’s not weighed in publicly on the change in tenure.

Without that change, existing law gives teachers no special appeal for their first three years with a district.

Once offered the standard school year contract for a fourth year, however, teachers gain what state law refers to as “due process rights.” Choose not to rehire that teacher for their fifth, or 15th, year and that person can demand a hearing.

A hearing officer — an attorney who must undergo continuing education in employment law — is chosen from a pool of candidates by lawyers representing the teacher and the school board. The school board must comply with the hearing officer’s ruling.

School administrators and teaching union officials say the hearings are rare, usually fewer than a dozen a year in the state. In the buildup to that point, however, principals and superintendents carefully document their case of misbehavior or incompetency and ways the teacher was told to shape up. Most fired teachers, often at the urging of their union representatives, don’t bother with the due process hearing.

That preparation for dumping a teacher is unlikely to go away if the new changes become law. Like all workers, with or without that appeal process, teachers can challenge a firing in civil court. They can contend violation of their civil rights motivated by, say, their race or their exercise of free speech.

“All teachers will still have access to due process that will defend the exercise of their constitutionally protected rights,” Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, said in an email statement.

He also argued that the change doesn’t stop unions from negotiating various appeals protection in contracts they strike with school boards. Rather, the lack of a state requirement would change the leverage in negotiations.

But both sides of the argument say the special process matters. Critics of various forms of public school teacher tenure say the appeals hearings tend to judge the fastidiousness of the boss’s firing plan rather than classroom performance.

“Unless it’s real misbehavior, something inappropriate with a student or felony conviction … it becomes a lot harder,” said Sandi Jacobs, managing director of state policy for the National Council on Teacher Quality. “It becomes a process hearing and not about whether kids in that classroom are learning.”

Union officials counter that the hearings protect against situations distinct to teaching — particularly when they might challenge administrators to protect students.

“Teachers deserve that,” said Randy Mousley, the president of United Teachers of Wichita. “How can we be advocates for our children if we don’t have the right to speak out?”

Many of the groups who care about the issue, on both sides, express discomfort with the Legislature’s quick action.

Jacobs’ organization, for instance, wants probationary periods stretched to five years and tenure granted only after meeting performance standards. Still, it would keep a firing appeal in place.

StudentsFirst, a self-styled reform group, also wants performance to trump experience. Yet its vice president of national policy, Eric Lerum, said the state should give direction on firing rules.

“You’ve made it easier to get rid of teachers, but you have to figure out who to fire, who to keep and who to help grow and become a better teacher,” he said.

Tom Krebs, a lobbyist for the state school board group, said the changes go awfully far very fast.

“This system is close to 60 years old,” he said. “You’ve had several generations of teachers operating with these systems in place. Then you have, in a sense, an overnight sea change.”

Confusion, meanwhile, has set in at the local level over whether local districts could include their own appeals rules in collective bargaining deals.

“People are going to have to interpret what this really means,” said Shawnee Mission Superintendent Jim Hinson.

Whatever the practical effect, the bill fits the national trend buoying those who believe it’s too hard to dump bad teachers and upsetting others who say it’s an unneeded step in the wrong direction.

David Thompson worked for years as a school principal and superintendent and saw some teachers “who didn’t belong in the profession.” But he said competent administrators can work either to improve their performance or boot them from schools.

“They’ve always had that power,” said Thompson, now a professor who heads the Department of Educational Leadership at Kansas State University. “It was just a choice of whether they chose to exercise it.”

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