AFT local battles Missouri anti-teacher tenure initiative

ST. LOUIS (The St. Louis Labor Tribune & PAI) — American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 420 President Mary Armstrong opposes a proposed Missouri statewide ballot initiative that would limit teacher tenure and base personnel decisions primarily on student performance standards.

“It would be a setback and would have an adverse impact on current educators and those considering entering the field of education,” Armstrong said in a recent interview with the St. Louis Labor Tribune.

Teach Great, a coalition backed by billionaire Rex Sinquefield, is funding the ballot initiative. The initiative is similar to a controversial and notorious anti-tenure court ruling in California and to another anti-tenure case filed in New York.

Those schemes are part of a national right wing initiative to demonize public school teachers, cut their pay, destroy their unions and eliminate their protections – tenure – from political pressure in the classroom. The Right also pushed an anti-tenure law in Michigan.

And Obama administration Education Secretary Arne Duncan cheered the California ruling, drawing a blast from Randi Weingarten, president of Local 420’s parent union, AFT.

Teach Great claims its ballot initiative would update and modernize educator evaluations using quantifiable student performance data as part of the evaluation system.

Its proposal would curb tenure protections for teachers and other certified school staff by limiting their contracts to three years. Starting in July 2015, all Missouri public school districts would need to adopt evaluation standards that use student performance data to guide decisions on promoting, demoting, firing and paying personnel

Armstrong is aware of Duncan’s stand, too. Before becoming Obama’s Education Secretary, Duncan was CEO – note the title – of the Chicago Public Schools.

“Standardized evaluations were just added by the (Missouri) Department of Elementary and Secondary Education as part of Obama’s Race to the Top Initiative,” Armstrong said. “Plus, each teacher evaluation includes an accountability factor.”

So what is the ballot initiative really about? In June, Anita Marie Kuehner and Daniel Twombly, two teachers in the Francis Howell School District, sued to block its placement on the ballot. Their suit makes the initiative’s aims clear.

The lawsuit contends the proposed ballot initiative is unconstitutional because it effectively would change two parts of the Missouri Constitution – one dealing with education, the other with collective bargaining. It asks a Cole County judge to prohibit the Secretary of State from certifying the measure for the November ballot.

Kuehner is president of the local chapter of the National Education Association, the nation’s other, and larger, teachers’ union. NEA just elected a new president who has vowed to be more confrontational against public school critics, including Duncan.

If approved by the voters, the initiative would virtually kill teacher tenure in Missouri. Fred Wickham and Brian Wood, of the American Federation of Teachers’ Missouri legal counsel, said tenure provides Missouri teachers with vital protections.

They explained a teacher becomes tenured in Missouri once he or she has been employed as a teacher for five successive years in the same school district and thereafter remains employed in the same district. That’s shortened to four years if the teacher has two or more years of teaching experience in another school system.

A tenured teacher who is later “separated” from employment with that district can regain tenure if the same district re-employs the teacher for a full year. And part-time contracted teachers gain credit toward tenure on a prorated basis.

A tenured teacher is considered a “permanent teacher” and is employed pursuant to an indefinite contract that continues from year to year, the attorneys said. This is preferable to the one-year contracts given to non-tenured teachers, as those contracts may be simply “non-renewed” at the end of the school year upon “timely notice” to the teacher.

And if a school district wants to end contract of a tenured teacher, tenure provides the teacher a number of procedural rights, including a hearing before the school board. State teacher tenure law also lists only six reasons for terminating a tenured teacher: Physical or mental condition unfitting him to instruct or associate with children; Immoral conduct; Incompetency, inefficiency or insubordination in the line of duty; Willful or persistent violation of, or failure to obey, the school laws of the state or the published regulations of the board of education of the school district; Excessive or unreasonable absence from performance of duties; or Conviction of a felony or a crime involving moral turpitude.

The initiative has been proposed as a single amendment to Article 9 of the Missouri Constitution, the suit says. But it also amends Article 1, which establishes the right to collective bargaining. By doing so, the initiative violates the constitutional provisions requiring initiatives to amend only one article of the state’s basic charter, the suit says.

The Committee to Support Public Educators, including the Missouri NEA and the Missouri State Teachers Association, is financing the suit. Armstrong is pleased the teachers took the initiative to sue. She agrees with their findings. “I hope they are successful in stopping the proposal,” she said. Opposition to the initiative “has united the Missouri NEA, the Missouri State Teachers Association and AFT Local 420. That’s never happened before.”

Secretary of State Jason Kander has until Aug. 5 to determine if the group has enough valid signatures to qualify for the initiative to be placed on the ballot – unless a judge prohibits Kander from placing the initiative on the ballot because of the lawsuit.

Photo: Missouri National Education Association Facebook page.



Sheri Gassaway
Sheri Gassaway

Sheri Gassaway is the assistant editor of the union-owned St Louis/Southern Illinois Labor Tribune.