Virginia lawmakers debate teacher tenure

February 12, 2012

Virginia lawmakers are debating whether to eliminate seniority-based job protections for public school teachers, making the commonwealth another front in a national fight over tenure laws that critics say protect ineffective educators from dismissal.

The House is expected to vote Monday and the Senate on Tuesday on bills that would make far-reaching changes to rules for teacher evaluations and employment. Instead of receiving “continuing contracts,” which are almost always renewed barring unusual circumstances, teachers would work on three-year contracts.

At the end of the three years, a teacher could be let go for poor performance — or for any reason at all — without an opportunity to appeal.

“You perform well, you keep your job,” Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said last month when he proposed the overhaul as part of a plan to improve Virginia schools. “You don’t perform well for an extended period of time, you don’t get a guarantee.”

The proposal would affect teachers who are in their first year or who are hired in the future, not Virginia teachers with more time in the job.

McDonnell’s effort has provoked intense resistance from labor leaders and their allies, who say the legislation would allow principals to get rid of teachers because of personality conflicts or other petty reasons.

“You’ve got a lot of teachers who already don’t have the best morale, but they’ve got some sense of job security, and now you’re going to take that job security away,” said Del. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Henrico), who opposes the legislation. “I think it sends the wrong message.”

States began enacting tenure laws more than a century ago in an attempt to guard against rampant nepotism, cronyism and arbitrary dismissals.

On college campuses, tenure generally amounts to a job guarantee for professors. But in public elementary and secondary schools, tenure entitles teachers to due process in dismissal proceedings. Administrators can fire a teacher who continues to perform poorly after being given a chance to improve.

Bipartisan attack

In recent years, tenure laws have come under bipartisan attack from critics who say they shield ineffective teachers from disciplinary action. President Obama and former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) are among those political leaders who have sought to give administrators broader powers to remove ineffective teachers.

Since 2009, 12 states have taken measures to link decisions about teacher employment to student achievement, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy organization based in Washington. Some school systems, including the D.C. public schools, have also eliminated seniority-based job protection.

Now, Virginia is among several states — including New Jersey, South Dakota and Connecticut — that are contemplating changes.

“The bottom line? Today tenure is too easy to get and too hard to take away,” Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (D) said when he introduced a tenure reform proposal last week. Teachers, he added, should be required to “continue to prove your effectiveness in the classroom as your career progresses.”

In Virginia, teachers spend three years on probation before they can receive continuing contracts. Those with continuing contracts are evaluated every three years and, under state code, can be dismissed for “incompetency, immorality, noncompliance with school laws” and other transgressions.

Critics of the current law say it requires documentation that can be so cumbersome and time-consuming that it discourages principals from taking action against bad teachers.

“The evaluation system we have now is flawed and ineffective,” Del. Richard P. “Dickie” Bell (R-Staunton), a retired teacher, said Friday as he spoke in favor of the governor’s bill in a House debate. “We can’t hold students to a higher standard unless we’re willing to hold teachers, principals and superintendents to a higher standard.”

State officials don’t track how many teachers are dismissed each year. But a U.S. Education Department survey found that, on average, Virginia school districts dismissed 1.3 percent of their teachers in 2007-08. Last school year in Fairfax County, which has about 14,000 teachers, two veteran teachers were dismissed for cause, and two others resigned before they could be fired.

“I think we have the tools currently to get rid of teachers who are ineffective,” said Richard Moniuszko, Fairfax’s deputy superintendent.

McDonnell originally proposed putting all of the state’s roughly 100,000 teachers, including veterans, on annual contracts. Teachers who received poor evaluations would have been eligible to lose their jobs each spring.

That proposal proved “too big a bite to take all at once,” Bell said. He said the current version of the legislation was formulated to win lawmakers’ support.

Under the bill before the House, teachers with continuing contracts would be allowed to retain them, even if they move to a different school system within the state.

New teachers, however, would go through a five-year probation and then receive three-year contracts. They would be evaluated annually, and at the end of each three-year period, they could be let go without due-process hearings.

Under the bill, administrators would be obligated to consider teacher evaluations in making contract decisions. But they would not be required to demonstrate just cause for a decision not to renew a contract.

The bill would require schools to take performance ratings into account when teachers are laid off.

New evaluation systems

The changes are meant to dovetail with new evaluation systems that school systems are developing to comply with guidelines passed last year by the state Board of Education. Those evaluation systems will tie teachers’ job ratings to student achievement for the first time.

A teacher whose students have showed academic growth should have no problem gaining contract renewal, said Javaid Siddiqi, Virginia’s deputy secretary of education. But great teachers would not be allowed to coast.

“If you decide to scale down and not make those same contributions to the lives of students — and it’s evident in your evaluation — there is no guarantee of employment,” Siddiqi said.

The proposal would also put principals on three-year contracts with similar conditions.

In Richmond, the debate has cleaved largely along partisan lines, with fellow Republicans generally supporting the governor and Democrats objecting.The bill appears likely to pass in the House, where the GOP has a large majority. But its prospects are less certain in the evenly split Senate, which Republicans control because of Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s tie-breaking vote.

Groups representing the state’s superintendents and school boards support the legislation. But teachers’ representatives see the measure as a demoralizing attack on the profession that will discourage talented recruits from working in Virginia, especially when teachers in neighboring Maryland are granted tenure protection after three years on the job.

“In the long run, it creates a very unfriendly environment for any young teacher who might want to move to Virginia from out of state,” said Kitty Boitnott, president of the Virginia Education Association, which has fought the bill. The association is an affiliate of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union.

Labor activists in Northern Virginia have been raising the alarm, urging teachers to call and e-mail lawmakers to express opposition to the bills. But it’s not clear how widely that message is being heard, perhaps because the changes will have their most dramatic effect on teachers who aren’t yet employed.

“In my circles, it’s definitely the topic of conversation,” said Chantilly High School teacher Kevin Hickerson, who serves as treasurer of the Fairfax Education Association. “But outside of that, people are going to be caught unawares.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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