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Affirmative Action for Ineffective Teachers

On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a legislative package making it easier to fire ineffective teachers. The bills were opposed by almost all House and Senate Democrats. Yet one Democratic legislator implicitly acknowledged the need for reform by offering an amendment to prevent poor or minority students from being saddled with a disproportionate number of the ineffective teachers.

The sponsor of the amendment was Rep. David E. Rutledge of Ypsilanti. Ironically, he also voted “no” on final passage of this and the other bills in the teacher tenure reform package, inviting this question: Wouldn’t it be better to just dismiss ineffective teachers rather than create an “affirmative action” program imposing their burden upon students equally on the basis of race and income? described the provision as follows:

Amendment offered by Rep. David E. Rutledge (D) on June 30, 2011, to require public school officials to “take all steps necessary to ensure that pupils who are members of historically underserved groups, such as African-American, Hispanic, Native American, or low-income pupils, are not assigned disproportionately to ineffective teachers.”

The amendment was defeated in a voice vote, so there is no record of who supported it and who opposed. It would have changed House Bill 4627, now Public Act 102 of 2011, the new law that prohibits teacher layoffs based on seniority rather than effectiveness (“last-in-first-out,” or “LIFO”).

Rep. Rutledge provided this explanation of his amendment and the problem it sought to address:

It is important that conversations about teacher quality also include a discussion about equity ... I believe this issue should be addressed because systemic inequities in public education are problematic in my community, statewide, and across the country. For example, the 2010 ACT report on college readiness in Michigan shows that in Washtenaw County, part of which I represent, 97 percent of African American students are not college-ready. Research shows that this inequity is not accidental; poor and minority students do not get their fair share when it comes to the distribution of the best teachers.

. . . Had my amendment passed, I believe that HB 4627 would have sent a strong statement that we will no longer ignore a primary cause of the achievement gap in Michigan education: the imbalance in teacher quality. (Hyperlink added to Education Trust report referenced by Rep. Rutledge.)

Curiously, Rep. Rutledge was one of seven Democrats who voted “yes” on the original House version of the LIFO bill, but “no” on the revised Senate version that was ultimately signed by the governor. (Four House Democrats voted for the final version, and all but one Republican for it, Rep, Ed McBroom of Vulcan.)  

Rutledge explained, "(T)here are some elements of the tenure legislation that I believe are reasonable improvements to the existing tenure law. However, I was always troubled by the four-bill package being tie-barred. Shouldn’t good public policy stand on its own merit?"

“Tie-barred” means the four bills in the tenure reform package each contained provisions prohibiting any from becoming law unless all did. However, this tie-bar provision was also in the original versions of the bills that Rutledge supported (see “A Sad Day for Michigan School Union Bosses”).

The version of House Bill 4627 Rep. Rutledge opposed had been amended by the Senate to strip out a provision giving school principals the power to refuse to place a teacher rated “ineffective” (see House Tries, GOP Senate Denies, Prevention of Poor-Teacher 'Rubber Rooms'). Rutledge also switched his vote on House Bill 4625, now Public Act 101 of 2011, which revised the actual teacher tenure process.

Rep. Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, was the sponsor of House Bill 4627. She said that she didn’t know why Rutledge voted for the original version but not the amended one.

“In fact, current LIFO policies harm urban and often underperforming schools,” she said. “Urban and underperforming schools have a higher rate of newer teachers.”

O’Brien also expressed regret that the provision empowering school principals was removed, but said that she reluctantly “agreed to the compromise in order to get the package passed.”

One unanswered question: Why is such a compromise needed, given that Republicans have a 26-12 majority in the Senate and 63-47 in the House?

The Michigan Education Association union was strongly opposed to both versions of the bill.

Because Michigan’s unreformed teacher tenure law has made it prohibitively expensive to dismiss poor teachers, reportedly it is not uncommon for school administrators to try to shuttle them off to other schools or districts. Some school officials refer to the process as “the dance of the lemons.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.