Tenure Reform Omitted from Michigan’s Sweeping Education Changes

Published December 24, 2009

Legislation to be signed into law soon by Gov. Jennifer Granholm promises sweeping education reform in Michigan, but some local lawmakers say it falls short of the goal of helping schools get rid of ineffective teachers. State Sen. Patty Birkholz (R-Saugatuck Township) said she was disappointed by the failure of a bill she sponsored that would have changed the Teacher Tenure Act to allow schools to move more quickly and spend less money to remove problematic teachers.

Birkholz’s efforts faced intense resistance from teacher unions. This ultimately led to a compromise that inserted language into the reform package authorizing the state to change its school code to link individual teachers to individual student performance, which administrators can use as a guide to make tenure decisions.

“I think it had more teeth under my proposal,” said Birkholz. “But having it in the school code is certainly a major step forward for Michigan.”

Deeply Rooted Problem

A Grand Rapids Press investigation in 2008 illustrated how difficult it is to discipline or fire teachers under Michigan’s tenure law. The probe found 17 public school districts in Kent and Ottawa counties had to use buyouts or other deals to oust some 29 teachers—many of whom were protected by tenure—because of behavioral problems. In the investigation, teachers were found to be:

• sexually harassing students

• viewing pornography on school computers

• failing to keep classrooms under control • drinking on the job

In some cases, districts glossed over problems by shredding evidence, asking administrators not to speak about the reasons behind a departure or writing a positive letter of recommendation for the teacher. State Sen. Wayne Kuipers (R-Holland) said Birkholz faced an uphill battle in changing the Tenure Act.

“The teachers union put up enough road blocks to [getting these reforms] and this was just one we couldn’t overcome,” Kuipers said.

Fighting for Funding

The education reform package, approved in the legislature December 19, is intended to bring some of the $400 million in federal Race to the Top funds to Michigan and will allow for public school takeovers, raise the dropout age, expand charter schools, and change teacher merit pay, among other things.

Doug Pratt, spokesman for the Michigan Education Association, which represents most public school teachers in West Michigan, said the language inserted in the school code was lifted straight from federal guidelines for capturing some of the funding.

“It’s what’s necessary to put Michigan in a good position to compete for those funds,” Pratt said. “It’s really what we had to do in order to compete.”

Despite his frustrations, Kuipers said the package met the goal of significantly changing the education system in Michigan.

“It’s easy to focus on what we didn’t get, but what we did get was very impactful,” Kuipers said.

Kyla King ([email protected]) is a staff writer at The Grand Rapids Press, where a previous version of this story appeared December 24, 2009. Reprinted with permission.