Tenure Reform, not Choice, is the Holy Grail

Many of us who support school choice do so because of our hope that competition will force recalcitrant districts and unions to reform. The theory of action goes something like this: Offer poor parents and their kids real options outside the (unionized) public schools. Attach public dollars to the kids so that the money leaves the system. Grow enough options so that the outflow of kids and money is large enough to get the attention of the district, and to cause some pain for the union (as the number of teachers–and union members–shrinks). And then sit back and watch the district and union embrace meaningful reforms to win parents back, including getting rid of bad teachers.

And finally, in Washington, D.C., we have some evidence that this theory can work. Here we have a city where a third of the students have decamped for charter schools, creating an environment in which the union is desperate to staunch the loss of teachers. Thus, the  union leadership reluctantly embraced a reform-minded contract that will make it much easier to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom. Score one for competitive effects!

But there is a much more direct way to address the protection of bad teachers. Rather than use choice to set in motion a chain reaction that ends with the removal of bad teachers from the classroom, why not go right at the bad teachers themselves?

That’s what we’re seeing in Florida, with the far-reaching tenure bill that’s sitting on Governor Crist’s desk. That’s what we saw in Central Falls, Rhode Island, with a superintendent willing to make all teachers in a failing school re-apply for their jobs. And that’s what we could see nationwide if states were willing to step up to the Race to the Top’s challenge for meaningful teacher accountability.

This is why teacher reform is now more radioactive than vouchers: Rather than taking a long, winding road, it attacks the core problem head-on. There something simple and elegant about that approach that you have to love.

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