Tending to tenure

Public school teachers in Colorado ought to be protected from arbitrary firing. But they shouldn’t be given carte blanche to serve in the schools as long as they want, regardless of how well they perform their jobs.

A bill introduced in the state Senate Monday aims to change that. And — no great surprise here — it has drawn the wrath of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union.

But Senate Bill 191 isn’t some right-wing rage against the education establishment. It is a bipartisan bill, and its primary sponsor, Sen. Michael Johnston of Denver, is both a Democrat and a former high school principal.

SB 191 would substantially change Colorado’s teacher tenure laws that currently grant permanent tenure to public school teachers after a short probationary period. Once tenure is achieved, it’s close to impossible to fire a teacher, short of showing criminal activity or gross negligence. More often, principals frustrated by unproductive teachers look for spots to move them where they do the least harm. But they remain on taxpayers’ payrolls.

SB 191 would grant tenure to new teachers only after three years in which they demonstrate they are “highly effective” educators, based on evaluations that rely heavily on student academic growth. Two consecutive years of “ineffective” evaluations could cause a teacher to lose tenure. More so than today, there would be incentives for teachers to perform well and to continue to do so.

We realize that most public school teachers work very hard. They look for ways to improve their teaching skills and boost the performance of their students. But a few do little more than coast once they have achieved tenure, frustrating administrators, parents and fellow teachers. SB 191 provides a much better means of dealing with those teachers.

A part of the argument for SB 191 is that it will help Colorado in the second round of applications for “Race to the Top” federal education money. Colorado was near the bottom of the rankings in the first round for that funding, which was announced this month.

We expect passage of SB 191 will improve the state’s chances for the federal funding. But even without that, changing the tenure system and tying teachers’ futures to their performance is the right thing to do.

But Democrats in the Legislature will be tested when they face opposition from their perennial allies in the teachers’ union. We hope they find the gumption to support Johnston’s bill.


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