Saturday, May 21, 2011

Gary Palmer and Cameron Smith: Time for tenure reform

  The next battle between public employee unions and a reform-minded legislature is taking place in Montgomery, Alabama. And even though Alabama is a right-to-work state, where employees' right not to join or support a union is protected, most of Alabama's education employees are members of powerful trade associations that are effectively public employee unions. The battle taking place concerns tenure reform and the ability to efficiently remove incompetent teachers. 

  The Students First Act coming up for consideration in the Alabama House of Representatives does not eliminate tenure. In fact, it would preserve tenure for probationary teachers who teach for three consecutive school years within the same school systems. Once teachers attain tenure, they can only be terminated for specific reasons. The greatest change comes in the form of a streamlined appeals process that would, among other provisions, allow school boards to stop making salary and benefit payments 75 days after the employee is terminated or when the appeal concludes, whichever is earlier. The legislation also explicitly states that teachers cannot be terminated for political or personal reasons.

  Not surprisingly, the Alabama Education Association (AEA) has chosen to fight these reforms, and it is really hard to blame them. Who would not want to work three years to obtain protections that create significant costs and procedural hurdles for an employer to fire them? The better question to ask Alabama taxpayers: when it comes to the people they hire to teach their children, do they want the current system in place?

  While the school district may be the Alabama teacher's employer on paper, it is the Alabama taxpayer who is paying salaries and benefits and who should be pushing for reform. Every taxpayer should want to retain and reward quality education professionals in our school systems. Even taxpayers without school-aged children have a vested interest in an effectively educated citizenry and workforce.

  The current tenure system in Alabama is not only slow, cumbersome and costly, but it was specifically designed to be that way. The problem with tenure is not that teachers cannot be terminated for good reason, but rather that the lengthy and expensive process deters school boards from initiating the process altogether, even when a bad teacher ought to be removed. The fear of a drawn-out, costly battle should not prevent school boards from efficiently terminating teachers and other education employees for good cause, including incompetence and conduct detrimental to students.

  Alabama can and should reward exceptional teachers who consistently produce results for students in and out of the classroom. Most Alabamians who excel at their place of employment are rewarded. Teachers and education employees should not be any different. One of the best examples of the effectiveness of rewarding educators for positive academic results comes from Israel, where teachers in 62 middle and high schools were first offered performance bonuses in 1995. Two years after the program began, students showed significant gains in test scores, the percentage of students sitting for college entry exams had increased, and the percentage of students dropping out of school between middle school and high school had declined. Notably, the largest improvements were among weaker students.

  Conversely, teachers and education employees should also be treated similarly when it comes to poor performance. Even if legislators believe that retaining tenure has a certain utility to protect against unwanted influence in staffing decisions, Alabama must ensure that the tenure process itself is not preventing school boards from making the right decisions for students.

  Almost everyone has a story about a teacher who had a positive impact on their life.  Those are the educators who should be set as examples and encouraged. But legislators should reform blanket policies, like tenure, that could easily wind up providing the same treatment and protections to both exceptional educators and tremendously poor ones.  With the political challenges state legislators encounter with any state education reform, Alabamians should, at the very least, be encouraged that their legislature is willing to tackle tenure reform.

  About the authors: Gary Palmer and Cameron Smith are with the Alabama Policy Institute,  a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.  

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