Will Education Session be ‘Special’?

Whether the legislature comes up with a teacher evaluation process that qualifies the state for extra federal funds or not, the special session will indeed be “special” if there is also some reform in teacher tenure. Reforming tenure will improve public education.

The Governor is calling a special session to discuss education reform, in particular, an increased level of teacher accountability so as to qualify for a few hundred million federal dollars for K-12 education. Here’s what would make it really special.

Having a special session on education is a great idea. Its improvement is certainly needed. And it’s hard for legislators or the public to really focus on it when there are 1,500 or so other bills clamoring for our attention. A session just on education is certainly unique, but unique doesn’t mean it will be special. That designation will depend on what they accomplish. Rearranging the chairs on the deck on the Titanic didn’t do anything “special” in the face of the huge tear in the ship’s underbelly.

Beware the Strings Don’t Hang Us

The first thing I think legislators need to consider are the strings with which the package of federal money will be wrapped. There are always strings with federal money. And even if the strings are acceptable now, that doesn’t mean they won’t send next year’s installment or the installment 10 years from now wrapped with different strings. After the way the health care bill was handled and all the control it extends to the federal government, should we expect this Congress and President to not want the same control over education?

About 10 years ago I carried a bill that changed the whole way child support was collected in Tennessee. Were there widespread problems with our collection system? No. We changed it because Congress decided to withhold several hundred millions in funds for the Aid to Families of Dependent Children if we didn’t. Changing our collection system was not part of the “deal” when Tennessee “signed up” decades ago. So, I’m not yelling wolf when I say, “Watch out.”

I’m not saying we couldn’t use the money. I’m not saying we shouldn’t take it—somebody’s going to get it whether we take our share or not. But it would be “special” if the legislature took pains to make sure the money wasn’t used to start some new recurring program we couldn’t afford to discontinue or to continue with our own state tax dollars if the strings become too onerous or offensive. If it can be used for nonrecurring expenses, so much the better.

Improvement Tethered by Tenure

A second thing that would be “special” is seeing reform to teacher tenure. There are many good teachers out there, and many who do not walk lockstep with the state teacher’s union on every issue. But tenure is an idea out of time. It has become an expensive, cumbersome obstacle to removing teachers who aren’t getting the job done. It’s easier and less expensive than litigation to move an ineffective teacher to another grade or another school. Or, if necessary, move them into administration. Protest all you want, defenders of tenure, but you know it happens.

Tenure Ignores Human Nature

But the law is problematic because it’s built on a premise that ignores the reality of human nature. And laws that do that, in time, will prove to be a bad.

Human nature is such that if we can get something for nothing, we’re inclined to take it. People will compare effort required with reward to be gained, and if we can give less effort and get enough of what we want, we’ll give less effort. Please understand, this is not true only of teachers; it’s true of all of us, but it’s not less true because a person is a teacher. And tenure has given license to this kind of thinking for too many people in education.

And please don’t give me the old idea that we need to protect teachers from politics. Unless you are self-employed, there are politics on every job. And, even the self-employed person has to play “politics” with his or her customers or lose them to someone else. And though it may be a shock to some, there are even politics in the church. Just ask someone who has been a preacher or minister of music for a few years.

Accountability with Reward Is Needed

But tenure is not the only problem. As stated, we naturally evaluate effort compared to reward. And in public education, there is not much reward for effort. Only a self-motivated person of real integrity will do their best regardless in a rewardless system year after year.

So, let’s put the two together: reward and accountability. For example, treat principals like a CEO. Hold the principal responsible for the progress of the school he or she leads. No progress, no job; good progress, then above-average pay.

With that kind of system in place, then tenure for teachers could be more easily modified. If a principal’s job and income depends on educational achievement, then it would make sense that the principal is not going to fire a good, effective teacher for petty reasons. I have had law partners with whom I strongly disagreed on a number of political and social issues and who often rubbed me the wrong way (as I know I probably did them), but they were good lawyers and profitable, so we pressed on. Only a foolish, shortsighted principal whose job depends on the success of his or her school would fire a teacher who is producing. Could it happen? Yes. But if the teacher is good, don’t you think another principal desirous of keeping his or her job and getting paid better would hire that teacher? And if good teachers were constantly leaving for another school, that in itself becomes an evaluation of that principal.

The session would be special if we could figure out a way to pay those who perform better than those who do not. Unfortunately, too many leaders in the teachers union prefer security to success and count some reward better than risk with great reward. And we wonder why so many students can accept mediocrity?

Will Republicans Lead or Follow?

It would be special if we had enough legislators say “enough” and stand up for students and for better education instead of the campaign cash and “votes” that teachers unions promise to deliver. And Republican legislators had better be careful they don’t succumb to the union’s newfound fondness for them like their Washington counterparts did with tax-and-spenders once they got control of Congress in 1994.

Remember, Republican legislator, the union wouldn’t endorse even an unopposed incumbent Republican candidate (maybe a true RINO every once in a while) before Republicans took control. My advice: Take their money, just don’t take all they’re selling. And if you feel you have to take their opinions if you take your money, remember you got where you are without their votes or their money. Politicians who forget where they come from need to be sent back to where they came from.

Stay tuned with us, and let’s hope for something special that will improve education and maintain our state’s educational and fiscal freedom.