Colorado’s SB 10-191 Boondogle

Way to go, Colorado!  In an incredible act of either startling ignorance or diabolical genius, you’ve gone and passed Senate Bill 10-191, effectively assaulting both labor and education in one fell swoop.  For those who don’t already know, this law is designed to begin the process of abolishing tenure and union protection for teachers across the state.  Passed as a “reform” to remove ineffective teachers from their positions, the new law actually allows administrators to fire any teacher they want, and make it look like the teacher’s fault.  “How is that possible?” ask the masses of at least three or four people who visit this site.  Well rest easy, my darlings.  I’ll show you.

First, we need to understand what tenure actually is, before we can look at how it’s been changed.  Like lawyers, dentists, doctors, pilots, police & firemen, as well as any number of other professions, education requires a great deal of highly specialized training before one can even begin to apply for positions in the field.  Also like many of the aforementioned professions, teachers have a strong union/ professional organization that works with state licensing boards to determine licensing guidelines in a process designed  to minimize the risks of unqualified people entering fields where they could seriously damage peoples’ lives.  This makes sense.  After all, you wouldn’t want someone being allowed to perform surgery just because they were dedicated fans of Grey’s Anatomy, would you?  Of course not.  You want assurances from other surgeons that this person, in fact, knows what the hell they are doing.  Teachers’ unions (the biggest being the National Educators’ Association) serve the same purpose as the AMA, ADA, and the Bar Association, making sure that aspiring teachers are given the necessary training to do the job before they are allowed to do it.

As a union, the NEA then also engages in collective bargaining with public school districts with the goal of acquiring the best possible working conditions for their members.  Just like any other collective bargaining agreement, teachers’ unions and school districts haggle with one another until a mutually agreeable compromise can be achieved.  Neither side gets all of what they want, but both sides get enough of what they want that they are willing to agree to the compromise.  In the case of education, one of the biggest sticking points for the union is that they demand protection from arbitrary firing for their more experienced members.  This protection is known as tenure.  Not to be overly repetitive, but here I must emphasize that both the union and the school district have already independently agreed to this.

Contrary to popular belief, tenure does not guarantee that a teacher will not be fired from their job.  What it does guarantee, however, is that they can only be fired for failing to do their jobs properly, and that the administration is required to show evidence that the teacher has been informed of their errors, given an opportunity to fix those errors, and still failed to perform their job.  Most of the school districts in Colorado have agreements that a teacher cannot receive tenure until they have been hire by the district for a fourth year, meaning that any teacher can be fired for any reason within their first three years in a district, and they have absolutely no recourse whatsoever.  Once a district has shown that they think well enough of a teacher’s first three years work to hire them for a fourth, the teacher is granted tenure and therefore the firing process becomes more difficult.  It must be stressed here that firing becomes more difficult, but is not impossible.  The only real difference is that tenured teachers are entitled to due process before being let go.

SB 10-191 changed all that.  When the law goes into effect in 2014, the burden of proof for performance will be shifted from the administrators to the teachers themselves.  Where teacher effectiveness was previously determined through observation of their teaching methods throughout the year as well as demonstration of student learning, effectiveness will now be based students’ standardized test scores only.  If a teacher’s students show poor performance two years in a row, the teacher’s tenure is revoked, effectively removing their protection from arbitrary release.  Should a teacher decide to contest being considered ineffective, they are burdened with proving that their students did in fact learn what they were supposed to, and doing so to the satisfaction of a district arbitrator (AKA “patsy”).

What’s the problem with that, you say?  Well, here it is.  Teachers don’t have any say over what groups of students they will be teaching from year to year.  Class rosters are supposed to be randomly selected, but they are not.  Administrators are the only ones with input on who gets placed in which class, ostensibly so that students can be placed with the teacher best able to meet their needs.  There is nothing, though, to prevent administrators from loading a teacher’s class with students that have already proven an unwillingness to put forth any effort.  In essence, administrators have the power to determine what student performance in a classroom will look like, through the process of deciding which students will go to which classroom.  This gives administrators the ability to essentially guarantee that a teacher’s performance through students’ test scores will be sub-par, which then will mean that the teacher can be fired because of the administration’s decisions.

Once this law goes into effect, we will see hiring and firing decisions become based solely on office politics, having, in reality, nothing to do with performance.  This is exactly what the rules of tenure were meant to prevent.  Once again I have to say way to go, Colorado!

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