June 16, 2010

An Important Article On Teachers In Texas

As I have said on a number of occasions, I am a member of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association. This article in the current issue of the official TCTA publication, "The Classroom Teacher", makes some important points about teaching in Texas and the fact that many of the things that people criticize in other states are not the case here. Rather than excerpt it, I have received permission to repost it here in its entirety. I'd like to extend my thanks to that permission.

* * * * * * * * *

Texas Teachers:
Collateral Damage In The War Against Teacher Unions

Teacher unions are under fire across the country right now as part of the movement to hold teachers more accountable for student performance. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s legislative program has been described as an “all-out attack” on teacher unions. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently criticized union leaders for using students as “pawns” and has been in repeated conflict with the state’s union. Noted columnist Carl Bernstein publicly blasted the American Federation of Teachers president with this comment: “The perception is that you all, over the years, have put job security in front of the welfare of kids. There is something to that perception.”

Among the more frustrating aspects of education policy in Texas are the repeated attempts to impose reforms here that originated in other states, or at the national level, by reformers accustomed to working with teacher unions. Texas school reformers often pick up on the latest national trends (currently “firing bad teachers”) without regard to how circumstances here might be different.

Many reformers, and even much of the public, object to the rigidity of union contracts, including tenure provisions. In most states, tenure is a property interest granted to experienced teachers that guarantees employment unless the employer has good cause to terminate the employee or for other reasons contained in a collective bargaining agreement. Tenured teachers usually have the right to a hearing before an independent judge or arbitrator.

Recent articles described the results of a strong tenure system by exposing the New York City Department of Education’s reassignment centers, also known as “rubber rooms.” These centers (set for elimination in fall 2010) house hundreds of NYC teachers who have been accused of misconduct or incompetence while they await hearings, continuing to receive salaries and accrue benefits for years.

Examples like this have moved the reform spotlight to focus on weakening the teacher unions and getting rid of tenure. This mantra has even been picked up in Texas, which is somewhat mystifying. Texas doesn’t have true teacher unions, and Texas teachers don’t have tenure! While there are procedures to be followed for the nonrenewal of a teacher after an initial probationary period, Texas law specifically provides that those procedures do not constitute a property right. Term contract teachers can be let go for any reason contained in district policy and have a right to a hearing only before the school board that hired the superintendent recommending the nonrenewal. As long as there is any evidence to support the board’s finding, the decision cannot be overturned.

Texas is a right-to-work state – the union rules don’t apply here. By law, Texas school employees cannot be coerced into joining a union, and are prohibited from striking or entering into collective bargaining agreements. We have so-called unions in Texas: the Texas State Teachers Association, affiliated with the National Education Association; and Texas AFT, affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. But with laws prohibiting their primary distinguishing features, we wonder why a Texas teacher would pay $400-$600 a year for the union label.

Despite these differences, a 2009 editorial by the Texas Public Policy Foundation used NYC’s “rubber room” example and comments about the difficulty of firing tenured teachers to lead into complaints about low turnover in Texas public schools. Citing statistics, “In Texas, many school districts dismiss less than 1% of teachers per year” – the article concludes that “Clearly it is not easy or politically palatable to fire bad teachers.” Apparently TPPF is under the impression that there are specific percentages of teachers in Texas who are “bad” and should be fired, but whose jobs are being protected by tenure laws.

We’ll say it again. Texas teachers don’t have tenure. The terms of employment are laid out in state law and school district policy, not in union-negotiated contracts.

Our job in the coming months will be to turn the conversation away from teacher unions and tenure, and toward the changes necessary to ensure that teachers have the resources and flexibility they need to do their jobs.

© Texas Classroom Teachers Association, June, 2010. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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