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Neighbor states might end teacher tenure

| December 16, 2010 6:32 AM


State legislators in the neighboring states of Wyoming and Montana are working on bills that would end teacher tenure. Not everyone is happy about the prospects of the change, especially teacher associations in the two states.

Besides sharing geographic borders, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho all share another trait – heavily-Republican legislatures. With the anti-tenure ideas coming from Republicans in the other states, one might wonder if a similar plan could – or should – come to the Gem State anytime soon.

Rep. Steve Thayn, R-Emmett, is a member of the House Education Committee.   Thayn says that he would like to have the discussion about enduing tenure, but wouldn’t make a firm commitment to supporting the idea.  “The current system helps teachers more than it helps students,” said Thayn.  “Having tenure doesn’t help students.  So yes, I think that discussion should come to Idaho.”

Calls for comment to Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association, were not returned.

Advocates for the Wyoming bill say that the legislation protects good teachers while making it much easier to remove poor educators from classrooms.  State Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, told the Casper Star-Tribune last week that the legislation will make teachers more accountable to the people who pay their salaries – the taxpayers.  “People flat don’t like tenure,” Coe told the newspaper. “People in the real world don’t like it. It doesn’t exist in any other business.”

Coe’s argument that the general public doesn’t have high regard for tenure may be spot-on.  A poll released earlier this week by the Associated Press and Stanford University shows that of the 1,001 Americans polled, 78 percent favored removing tenure.  Lest anyone think Americans simply hate teachers, 57 percent of respondents believe teachers aren’t adequately paid for the work they perform.

Tenure typically guarantees educators contracts year after year.  In Idaho, like Wyoming, teachers must spend three successful years in the classroom before gaining tenure.  Once tenure is granted, teachers are often freed from having to worry about the status of their jobs because administrators cannot fire teachers without due process.  While tenure does not make it impossible to dismiss educators, critics of the practice say that it makes it much more difficult.

Coe’s plan would put teachers back on a year-to-year basis with Wyoming school districts.  Educators would face annual performance reviews to determine their worthiness to continue teaching and good teachers would be allowed to continue in classrooms.

There are fewer details available about the Montana plan, but the idea behind the proposal is basically the same.  Montana state Rep. Derek Skees, R-Whitefish, told that he “want(s) to make tenure basically illegal in the state of Montana.”  The Skees’ plan would not only include K-12 public school teachers, but university professors as well.

The Montana Republican is targeting tenure because he believes the practice protects bad teachers from consequences of their actions.  “Any environment that legalizes bad behavior needs to be removed, and I think tenure legalizes bad behavior,” said Skees.

Both bills will be proposed in 2011 as part of each state’s legislative session.

But the bills are not without opposition.  In Montana, the teachers’ union has come out in full force against Skees’ bill, with a message from the group’s president urging all teachers to resist the change.

As for the Wyoming plan, the Casper Star-Tribune railed against it, saying that it wouldn’t do much to improve teacher performance.  “It’s important to realize that eliminating teacher tenure in the state is not only not a cure-all, it’s actually a red herring,” writes the paper’s editorial board.  “Some officials and the public may believe that such action alone will solve the problem of being able to replace inferior teachers, but without these other elements in place it will still be difficult for districts to make tough but necessary choices that should help Wyoming motivate teachers to improve no matter how long they’ve been employed.”  The board supports a merit pay system for teachers that would help provide incentives for educators based on student performance.