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Minnesota 2020 Journal: It Can't Happen Here, Can It?

April 09, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow
A Florida State Senate vote, unilaterally changing teaching contract terms, could ripple north and further undermine Minnesota's traditionally strong but struggling public schools. Eliminating Florida teacher tenure is another conservative public policy achievement minimizing public education's transformative impact. Florida will certainly be weaker for the decision but so will Minnesota and every other state.

Several weeks ago, the Florida State Senate approved legislation eliminating teacher tenure for all new Florida teachers. The measure appears on track to become law. If that happens, beginning July 1, new teachers will work under yearly employment contracts.  Presently employed teachers will continue to be covered under their collective bargaining agreements, retaining tenure.

For new teaching hires, contract renewal will hinge on student performance on standardized tests. Failing to improve test performance will result in effective teacher termination.

I can't imagine that this is going to improve learning in Florida schools. I can imagine unhappy families, kids, teachers, principals, superintendents, parent-teacher associations, school boards and college teaching majors. They can be angry alone, cursing the darkness, or they can light that single candle and find unity in their common cause. Minnesota must stay abreast of the Florida situation because, despite contrary insistence, it can happen here.

There's already a fair amount of Florida finger-pointing happening. That's the stroke of conservative genius. The new teacher employment policy divides friends, pitting them against each other. The Tallahassee Sun-Times quotes a frustrated teacher asking, "With all the accountability measures being heaped on teachers, what about the parents? The best teacher in the world will not see terrific gains if there's hell going on at home."

Suddenly, everyone is distracted, angrily pointing fingers at each other while conservative policy advocates chortle. Education isn't improved but another barrier protecting the no taxes/low taxes movement is erected.

We are taking our eyes off the prize.

But, let's think through the consequences of compensation and livelihood solely tied to student test performance. Presumably, the contract will clearly articulate the conditions constituting "improvement." Some of this is determined by federal No Child Left Behind guidelines regarding test taking conditions, participation, testing day absenteeism and that sort of thing.

Pedagogically, standardized testing's content will dictate curriculum. If music, physical education, consumer education, art and vocational agricultural subjects aren't part of the key testing instrument, it's fair to conclude that music, physical education, consumer education, art and vocational agricultural subjects will disappear or be minimized. We'll be left with English, math, science and social studies.

 I am a great fan of traditional subjects, but schools should prepare children for more than matriculating at Yale as Classics majors. More classics majors would make the world a better place but this policy shift proposes to make teachers responsible for a great many learning factors beyond teacher control such as learning disabilities, a student's family life, a student's family experience with test-evaluated learning, student absenteeism, test-taking conditions, test processing errors, parent insistence that students study subjects not tested in the all-important employment contract hanging in the balance test and so on.

With employment and livelihood on the line, rooted in contractual obligation, school districts and teachers will quickly find themselves mired in traditional breach of contract resolution process. It's called the lawsuit, wherein one party charges another party or parties with failing to fulfill agreed upon terms and seeks, in return, compensatory damages. That means money.

Cost is an overriding litigation factor. I may feel wronged by your actions and I certainly can seek redress of grievances through our courts but suing you will cost me a boat load of money. If I choose the lawsuit route, I can only hope it will be a small boat and not a large one.  I have to consider the cost of bringing suit and the cost-risk of losing, as well as the cost of time lost during litigation. As costs mount, I will most likely wonder what exactly I'm gaining from litigation.

Ours may be a state and nation of laws but lawyers don't work for free. School districts relying on strict contract enforcement will quickly find themselves being sued by discharged teachers for not holding up the school district's end of the bargain. Rapidly growing employment litigation budgets are not the best use of precious educational resources.

Again, the Florida State Senate vote won't improve children's learning. It is a terrific conservative distraction, forcing Floridians' attention from what really matters--healthcare, transportation, jobs and education--and into dithering over fallacies. Minnesota mustn't fall into the conservative fallacy. We need to pay attention to Florida's policy shift because, yes, it can happen here.


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