Removal of teacher tenure evaded usual scrutiny, but proponents say measure was warranted

? The proposal that does away with teacher tenure in Kansas was added to a school finance bill without any public input and lacks only Gov. Sam Brownback’s signature to become state law.

That school finance bill includes $129 million to try to address a Kansas Supreme Court order to increase aid to poor school districts. But it also includes a number of education policy changes that were pushed by conservative Republican leaders in the closing hours of the regular legislative session that ended last week.

While it is not unusual for legislators to package legislation with various bills in order to secure more votes, in almost every instance each of those proposals receives some level of vetting and public input.

But removing teacher tenure received no hearing where members of the public and stakeholders could appear before a legislative committee to testify either for or against or neutral on the measure, or provide expert testimony.

No legislative committee “worked” the proposal, combing through it with legislative staff and voting on any changes and the final product. And unlike many major policy initiatives, which are debated in the media and elsewhere for months, even years, this one was approved almost as soon as it was introduced.

The proposal was presented last weekend as an amendment on the Senate floor and then passed within hours through the Senate and House under the guidance of conservative legislative leaders.

State Sen. Tom Arpke, R-Salina, introduced the amendment and had difficulty answering questions about it later in the debate. When asked by the Lawrence Journal-World where he got the idea for this amendment, he emailed back a link to a video of state Rep. Ward Cassidy, R-St. Francis, speaking during the House GOP caucus on the difficulty he had, when he was a school principal, in getting rid of a bad teacher under the current system.

One of the public supporters of removing teacher tenure was the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a nationwide organization that describes itself as “advancing every individual’s right to economic freedom and opportunity.” It supports cutting both taxes and government spending and was founded by billionaires Charles and David Koch, who run Wichita-based Koch Industries.

But opponents of the bill cited both the contents of the measure and the process by which it passed as problematic.

“I do not believe that it is good legislative procedure to be making decisions of this magnitude after midnight, particularly when the radical policy changes had not been fully considered with public input during the committee process,” said state Sen. Vicki Schmidt, R-Topeka, who voted against the bill.

“This Legislature spends a lot of time and energy speaking about transparency. The procedure regarding the policy changes contained in this bill were clearly not transparent,” she said.

While there were no hearings on the proposal, Senate President Susan Wagle said the issue of teacher tenure has been discussed for a while and she adamantly defended her actions.

“District administrators have asked legislators to repeal our tenure law for many years,” Wagle said.

According to the Kansas School Superintendent Association’s public policy statements, the organization supports the current system of due process rights for teachers “if the process is clarified to allow boards of education to remove teachers as long as such removal is supported by a preponderance of the evidence.”

Wagle said, “Since No Child Left Behind became law, administrators and schools have a much greater level of accountability, along with the burden of delivering improved student outcomes. Those outcomes can only be attained if they control their employees instead of the teachers union.”

Currently, teachers who have three years’ experience are allowed to have a hearing before an independent officer if they are not renewed for work. The Kansas National Education Association says there are about 10 of those due process hearings per year statewide.

The new proposal would repeal that.

KNEA says that without the protection of administrative hearings teachers may be dismissed for political reasons, such as failing to give a good grade to a star athlete, or for trying to fight school administrators to get special education services for a student.

Gay rights advocates also contend the proposed change could open up the way for dismissals based on sexual orientation.

But supporters of repeal say it currently takes too long to get rid of incompetent teachers. They say they are required to file numerous documents and fight with attorneys.

“The unions are crying ‘sour grapes’, but I’m cheering for all those families and kids who in the future will have teachers who love their job, love their students, and want each and every child to succeed. It was the right thing to do,” Wagle said.

The KNEA, however, said, “We believe that members of the Kansas Legislature who promoted this bill by voting for it, took extraordinary measures to do so without public scrutiny, under the cover of darkness, in an effort to ram through harmful policy.”