A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

The Michigan Legislature recently debated a modest teacher tenure reform bill that passed in the Senate but then died when the House failed to act. The issue will surely return in the 2011 session, and when it does, lawmakers should consider the following:

Under current law, it is nearly impossible to fire a tenured teacher, no matter how ineffective.

Everyone from Mackinac Center staff to Michigan Education Association union members knows that all our public schools teachers are not above average, and indeed, some are downright poor. No one disagrees that bad teachers should be removed, so the only question is how.

The documentary film "Waiting for Superman" provides some insights on the magnitude of the problem. It notes that every year nationwide, one out of every 57 doctors and one of 97 lawyers loses his or her license for malpractice. In contrast, only one out of every 2,500 unionized, public school teachers with tenure gets fired in any given year.

More evidence comes from the nation's second-largest public school system, Los Angeles, which has over 45,000 teachers. Between 1990 and 2000, the district fired exactly one tenured teacher. Any private-sector business operating in a competitive marketplace that was this unresponsive to employee quality would certainly fail, but in the public education sector, the consequences are instead imposed on students.

Michigan is hardly immune to the problem. School districts here have kept tenured teachers on the payroll despite felony convictions, and on the rare occasion a school does manage to unload a deficient instructor, doing so can require years of legal action costing hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.

School employee unions often defend tenure in terms of "academic freedom" and "due process" protection from unjust firings. They argue that educators may be victimized by poor principals who judge them unfairly. However, for good reason, virtually no private-sector employees are granted a comparable immunity from termination. Hardly any private or charter schools grant teacher tenure, either. It is encouraging that Michigan's largest school employee union at least talks the talk on teacher tenure reform; maybe the MEA realizes that good teachers have nothing to fear.

The institution of teacher tenure has become one of the dysfunctions driving down our public education system. Rather than a reasonable protector of good teacher's jobs, it is nothing more than a guardian of incompetence. Tenure law should be reformed so that good teachers move up and bad teachers move out.

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