An investigative series by the Grand Rapids Press in late 2008 exposed the wrenching and expensive process that Michigan public schools must go through to dismiss even the most troublesome of tenured public school teachers. Though a new state law is supposed to make this easier, critics argue that all of the strict teacher tenure protections will remain in place and that these are a far greater impediment to getting the job done.
But another proposed reform that would have tackled the tenure problem head-on barely passed the Republican-controlled state Senate late last year, when even two GOP senators sided with the Democrat minority to oppose it. That bill, Senate Bill 638, received exactly 20 votes - the minimum needed for Senate approval. It is now in the Democrat-controlled Michigan House and is not expected to receive further serious consideration.
In comparing the two options, Michael Van Beek, director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, states that progress under the new law may be only hypothetical. In a recent essay, he waggishly describes the "13 easy steps" still needed to dismiss an "ineffective tenured teacher" in one typical school district. Steps 9-13 include more than a year of potential tenure administrative hoops to jump through — none of which have been changed by the new law.
A Senate Fiscal Agency memo defines what would have been Senate Bill 638's crucial change: "The bill would amend the teachers' tenure Act to add consistent ineffectiveness in teaching as a ground for the discharge or demotion of a teacher on continuing tenure."
While some might think that "consistent ineffectiveness" as a grounds for termination is a rather common-sense — almost obvious — standard to insert into the teacher tenure act, it is in fact a highly controversial hurdle for Michigan lawmakers to clear.
"The teachers union put up roadblocks," said Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, telling the Grand Rapids Press on Dec. 24 why SB 638's tenure reforms were not going to be enacted. He was describing what stalled the bill in the House, but his words could equally apply to the bill's narrow escape from the Senate.
The Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest public school employee union, is the roadblock that Kuipers was speaking of. The union counts most Democrats among its tacit allies in the Legislature, and as such, a large majority of its financial support flows to that party's candidates. The MEA opposed SB 638 when the legislation barely passed the Senate and is a large reason why the bill is moribund in the House.
But the MEA's partisan preference for Democrats does not constitute an exclusive relationship.
Sen. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek, and Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw, are the two Republicans who refused to vote for SB 638. In a special election that elevated him to the Senate last fall, it was Nofs — not his Democrat opponent — who received the MEA recommendation and $5,600 in financial support from the union’s political action committee. Likewise, campaign accounts controlled by Kahn have received at least $3,350 from the union PAC since 2007.
Sen. Patty Birkholz, R-Saugatuck, is the sponsor of SB 638. Expressing her disappointment to the Grand Rapids Press that the reform would not become law, she told the newspaper that her bill had more teeth in it than the more modest reform that did pass.
One of Sen. Birkholz's major concerns is the large cost that a district must endure to get rid of bad apples in the classroom. She told the Press, "superintendents from Lansing to the Lakeshore tell me it remains difficult to dismiss an ineffective teacher who has tenure."
The Press's 2008 investigation demonstrates why.
The paper surveyed four years' worth of public records for the 31 school districts in Kent and Ottawa counties and found that 17 districts had parted ways with 29 tenured instructors during the period. Most of them had 10 or more years in the classroom and were accused of serious misdeeds and very poor performance.
But trying to fire a tenured teacher is often a very last resort in all but the worst cases because tenure review battles can take as long a year and the district must pay the salary of the teacher — who is put on paid leave — during the process. And this does not count the legal costs — often large — incurred on the district to document and then prosecute the case.
To make the problem go away as quickly and cheaply as possible, the districts in the report often got the teacher to leave by agreeing to continued salary and benefit payments. The 17 districts paid $763,251 over the four year period to part ways with the 29 teachers.
In half of the cases examined, the districts also "glossed over the problem" after the teacher was gone by "shredding evidence, asking administrators not to speak about the reasons behind the departure or writing a positive letter of recommendation for the teacher" when the instructor applied for new work.
A few examples of reasons for the departures are detailed below. The Grand Rapids Press notes that the settlement costs listed arise from teachers being "paid to leave their jobs" and that in most cases they represent "what a district paid in salary and insurance coverage. …"
- A 19-year veteran choir teacher in Zeeland was cited for drinking at the job and an inappropriate relationship with a student. Settlement cost: $78,530.
- A 37-year veteran high school teacher in Godwin Heights gave away answers to tests and engaged in other inappropriate conduct. The district wrote him a glowing recommendation extolling his "pride in the district" and the "sense of respect for learning" that he provided. Settlement cost: $58,240.
- A music teacher in Grand Rapids with 5.5 years of experience was imprisoned after being charged with nine counts of criminal sexual conduct with his students. Settlement cost: $19,930.
- A science teacher with 36 years of experience in West Ottawa was cited for "unsatisfactory evaluations" and giving out tests with correct answers highlighted. Settlement cost: $84,349.
- A 22-year veteran Grand Haven high school teacher was repeatedly suspended. In one instance, he brought a knife to school to show students how to stab somebody "without getting it stuck in the victim's rib cage." Settlement cost: $35,000.
Contact information for all Michigan lawmakers is available here.