An end to tenure?

Published 9:15 pm Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Gov. Bob McDonnell set out an education agenda on Monday that aims to reduce the number of diplomas the state’s public schools must offer, enhance dual enrollment programs with colleges, beef up reading programs for third- and fourth-grade students, provide extra incentives for teachers in the important science, technology, engineering and math fields and do away with the requirement that Virginia’s public school systems remain on summer break until after Labor Day.

In any other year, the controversial Labor Day requirement would threaten to overwhelm public consciousness, as the Chamber of Commerce and tourism industry representatives fought to make sure that it had no way forward. Even as more than half the state’s systems start school prior to Labor Day on the basis of waivers from the Virginia Department of Education, those with a stake in the business of Virginia tourism could have been expected to make significant noise about saving the 30-year-old law.

But this year McDonnell also has proposed something even more radical, even more controversial, something that will raise shouts of protest guaranteed to drown out discussion of just about everything else during this session of Virginia’s General Assembly. This year, McDonnell has proposed putting an end to tenure for public school teachers, the contract provision that makes it almost impossible for teachers with a certain number of years of service to be fired.

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Coupled with a requirement that school districts begin evaluating teachers in part based on their students’ level of success, the end of tenure could finally result in the elimination of what is widely believed to be the biggest problem in public education: lousy teachers. Which is not to say that all, or even most, teachers are lousy. It’s likely that the percentage of deadbeat teachers is small compared to the percentage of average, good and excellent ones. But lousy teachers who have no real fear of losing their jobs because of a tenure system that never was intended for secondary educators in the first place cause great damage to students, to schools and to the educational system in general.

But nothing important ever comes easily, so prepare for a major fight over the tenure issue. Teachers’ associations (Virginia doesn’t allow teachers’ unions) are sure to lobby hard to get the General Assembly to pass on McDonnell’s proposal. They’ll make public pronouncements about the danger of eliminating tenure provisions, and they’ll round up a few high-profile and well-respected educators to explain how they’ll be hurt by the proposal. And in the end, even with Republicans in control of the Assembly, the teachers might rattle enough cages to frighten the politicians into submission.

Meanwhile, though, much of McDonnell’s education agenda is likely to sail through the Assembly. That will be of some small consolation if tenure provisions remain standing when all is said and done.