Kansas GOP leader defends teacher tenure plan
Topeka A top Kansas Republican sought Wednesday to quell criticism of a proposal to eliminate tenure for public school teachers approved by the Legislature as part of a court-mandated school funding plan, suggesting the anti-tenure measure is not as harsh as portrayed.
House Speaker Ray Merrick’s office released a memo from the Legislature’s nonpartisan legal staff to support his argument that the proposal does not strip all teachers facing dismissal of their right to an independent administrative review. The same memo, dated Tuesday, also noted that the measure doesn’t change teachers’ rights to bargain collectively with individual school boards to preserve rights now being lost.
Teachers facing dismissal after at least three years in the classroom currently have the right to appeal to independent hearing officers. All teachers can seek an independent review if they believe they’re being dismissed for exercising a right, such as free speech, protected by the state or U.S. constitution. The measure approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature would end the broader protection for teachers with three or more years in the classroom.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback must decide this month whether to sign the school funding plan. It provides an additional $129 million during the next school year to the state’s poorest districts to comply with a ruling last month from Kansas Supreme Court.
Supporters argue that ending tenure will make it easier to remove poor teachers from classrooms, and thereby help children. But dozens of red-shirted members of the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, flooded the Statehouse over the weekend to protest the policy before it passed, arguing that the change subjects all teachers to arbitrary firings and leaves them without due process rights.
“All teachers will still have access to due process that will defend the exercise of their constitutionally protected rights,” Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, said in an email statement.
“Our focus and priority is giving students the best quality education possible,” he added. “A child only has one shot at a great education, and a year with an underperforming teacher can greatly hamper their long term abilities to succeed.”
The KNEA issued a lengthy rebuttal to Merrick’s analysis. The union conceded that the measure still allows administrative hearings when teachers believe they’re being dismissed for exercising their constitutional rights, but it said administrators aren’t likely to acknowledge it and won’t have to spell out their reasons.
KNEA lobbyist Mark Desetti said of the suggestions that teachers are still protected, “It’s misleading at best and an outright lie at worst.”
Desetti dismissed Merrick’s comments as “spin.” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat and veteran teacher, said Merrick and other Republicans who supported the measure are “under a tremendous amount of heat for what they’ve done.”
Brownback has not said whether he likes the anti-tenure provision.
“There’s a lot of interpretation going on right now as to what the tenure provision means and who it applies to,” Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said.