Teach Great gearing up for tenure fight


Saint Louis, Mo. — Education reform advocates in Missouri are gearing up for yet another fight with the public education establishment in what will likely be the most expensive political fight of the November cycle.

Funded primarily by conservative mega-donor, Rex Sinquefiled, “Teach Great” has successfully petitioned to place a measure on the November ballot that would end teacher tenure in the state of Missouri and give school boards new authority in evaluating teachers.

Kate Casas, who works with the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri and is a vocal advocate of school choice, is serving as Teach Great’s spokesperson, and told The Missouri Times that the measure would make it easier for school boards to get rid of bad teachers.

“It’s a real shift in how we think about education,” Casas said. “And it’s a way of saying that teachers need to be held accountable and that evaluations of those teachers can’t be 100 percent subjective.”

Teachers unions or administrators haven’t exactly warmly embraced that assertion, and the organized education establishment is unlikely to let go of tenure without a bloody fight.

Casas, spokesperson for Teach Great
Casas, spokesperson for Teach Great

Most opponents of tenure reform say administrators can fire bad teachers right now and that eliminating indefinite contracts will reduce the number of overall teachers and leave educators open to frivolous terminations. Opponents also say that overhauling the method of evaluating teachers district-by-district could be a costly endeavor.

But the law wouldn’t require much immediate action from school boards. If approved, Missouri’s Amendment 3 would prohibit the awarding of indefinite teacher contracts, end seniority-based layoffs, tie at least 51 percent of a teacher’s evaluation with student growth as measured by standardized tests, and give school boards more authority in deciding how to evaluate teachers.

The measure contains reforms similar to some seen in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana in the past few years. In 2011, Indiana passed a sweeping reform of teacher tenure in the state, eliminating indefinite contracts, tying pay increases directly with student performance, and creating a strict model for teacher evaluations statewide.

In Ohio, federal education funds have been tied to stricter evaluations of teachers and Michigan broadened not only the mandatory probationary period for new teacher, but required through state law an accelerated firing process for failing teachers.

Since about 2010, several states — predominantly in the Midwest — have considered or finalized some version of teacher evaluation and tenure reform. However, several of these states made the changes via state lawmakers, and not by popular vote.

Teach Great told The Missouri Times that a ballot question has plenty of challenges, not the least of which is the expensive campaign required to get the message to voters. While Teach Great anticipates as much as $3 million being spent by supporters, it’s unlikely they will greatly outspend national teachers unions like the American Federation of Teachers or the National Education Association. Both the Missouri NEA and the Missouri AFT have already contributed funds to the fight against Teach Great; a group called Protect Our Local Schools has been organized by educators to fight the measure.

Sizeable donations from both the MNEA and the Missouri AFT suggest national funds are already at play, as the donations made to Protect Our Local Schools exceed contributions normally seen from the organizations. And while the national offices for two of the nation’s leading teacher’s unions are likely to spend real money on the race, they’ll be facing off against a growing movement of self-described school reform advocates with generous funding from — in Missouri’s case — enthusiastic supporters like Sinquefield.

In an election cycle with no statewide race on the ballot — Auditor Tom Schweich has no Democratic challenger — and no governor, senator or president to elect, a bitter campaign over how to evaluate and occasionally fire teachers is almost certainly going to dominate Missourians’ trip to the polls in November.