California Ballot Initiatives Can Jumpstart Reforms

Teacher tenure, paycheck protection needed to improve system

California has more than 1,700 schools failing to make adequately yearly progress according to No Child Left Behind Act standards. And the U.S. Department of Education just delivered more bad news to California students and parents. The newly-released 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which reports on reading and math achievement scores in every state, shows California fourth graders scored an average of just 207 out of 500 in reading, with eighth graders scoring 250 out of 500. Only students in Mississippi and Washington, D.C. scored worse.

The state’s poor academic performances and the large number of struggling schools demonstrate our failure to implement reforms and may be the best argument for two ballot initiatives — teacher tenure (Proposition 74) and paycheck protection (Proposition 75).

Over the long haul, Prop. 75, which would prohibit unions from spending member dues on political contributions without explicit consent from individual members, could turn out to be a deciding factor in whether or not we can stop wasting education money on bureaucracy and red tape, and get more money flowing into classrooms. In recent years, the teachers’ union has shown a troubling tendency to put union power and financial interests ahead of students and educational interests.

Why does a 2002 state law say that a catering company can’t provide school lunches and a local cleaning company can’t clean classrooms?

Simple, the union only wants dues-paying union employees in those jobs — even if it costs more and thus takes money out of classrooms.

They used their political war chests to lobby for, and pass, a law prohibiting California schools from hiring private firms for food, transportation, janitorial and landscaping services. Meanwhile, studies show that school districts in other states are saving 20 to 40 percent by outsourcing these very services. If California saved 40 percent on the more than $13 billion spends on these types of school services, we’d be looking at around $5 billion that could go to books, computers, or even more teachers each year.

Most good teachers wouldn’t care who cuts their school’s grass especially if it meant they’d actually have the books and computers they need inside their classrooms. And if the union has to justify and explain what causes it spends money on to rank-and-file teachers — and the tradeoffs – we might actually lay the groundwork for some real education reform.

Increasing the requirement for teacher tenure is also likely to spur improvements. Prop. 74 would extend the time it takes for teachers to become permanent public employees to five years. Current teacher tenure laws give teachers lifetime employment guarantees after just two years, making it difficult for principals to hold teachers accountable for student achievement.

A new study by researchers from Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and EdSource, a nonpartisan education organization, interviewed over 5,500 teachers and 257 principals, and found that the schools with high test scores are “more likely to have teachers that report school-wide alignment and consistency in curriculum” and provide “instruction that is closely based upon state academic standards.”

Many principals are doing their best to analyze test results and identify teachers who need help and additional training, but they have little or no recourse if the teachers do not improve. New tenure rules would give principals the added ability to ensure that teachers who receive multiple years of negative evaluations and low test scores can be replaced with more effective teachers.

If principals have more control over the quality of their teachers maybe California will no longer find itself at the bottom of the nation’s student achievement rankings.

Tenure reform and paycheck protection are the first steps in leveling the playing field between policymakers who are focused on improving student achievement and those who support labor interests over student interests.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation.