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Kansas has become the latest state to restructure teacher tenure rules. In doing so, Kansas has eliminated some protections for teachers that have been on the books for decades, making it easier for them to be fired. Supporters say the change will benefit Kansas students. Opponents say it could make teaching a more risky career choice. Kansas Public Radio's Stephen Koranda reports.
STEPHEN KORANDA, BYLINE: Under the old rules in Kansas, if there's an issue with a teacher's job, and they've been teaching at least three years, schools need to document problems and give them time to improve. If that doesn't work, teachers can get a due process hearing before being fired. Republican Senate president Susan Wagle says that made it too hard to get rid of bad teachers. She thinks schools should be run like private businesses.
STATE SENATOR SUSAN WAGLE: The executive, the owner, is allowed to hire people that they believe gets the job done and fire people when the job isn't done.
KORANDA: Eliminating the protection was included in an education funding bill passed last month. Some lawmakers objected strenuously, arguing that teachers could now be fired for no reason. But Republican Senator Michael O'Donnell says the change is about improving education. He doubts claims that school districts would unfairly fire top-quality teachers.
STATE SENATOR MICHAEL O'DONNELL: I've never met a superintendent that believes in a crony-type environment, that wants to punish and single out individual teachers. I've never met a school administrator that has gone after good teachers.
KORANDA: Some here see the changes as vindictive, a way to punish the state teachers union because it doesn't always see eye-to-eye with Republican lawmakers.
CHARLES WALTHER: What purpose, or what purposes, do all governments serve?
KORANDA: In a classroom outside of Topeka, middle school teacher Charles Walther is giving a quiz about government to his students.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: To make laws.
WALTHER: That is one.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Provide services.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: And issue licenses.
WALTHER: That's a power of government. That's close.
KORANDA: Walther says teachers like him need to be thinking about what benefits students most, not if every single grade or teaching method could potentially get them fired.
WALTHER: This is a pointless change. This is a change that would allow people to get rid of teachers for no reason. We had a process. The process, when applied, worked.
KORANDA: There are concerns that teachers could be fired for a variety of reasons - for giving a bad grade to a star athlete or even just angering a parent. Stephanie Harsin is a Special Ed teacher in Topeka. She says teachers sometimes have difficult conversations with parents and in some cases might need employment protections.
STEPHANIE HARSIN: Sometimes you have to tell parents things about their children that maybe they aren't wanting to hear. And you have to have those conversations in order for everyone to get on board to help that child.
KORANDA: Some states have revamped teacher employment laws in recent years, even though many of those updated laws still have some type of tenure or teacher protections. In Wisconsin, changes to union bargaining rights eliminated some teacher protections in 2011 and more teachers have been fired since the change.
For now, teachers in Kansas can try to bargain due process hearings into their contracts. The debate over teacher education protections here has caused a significant uproar and is likely to play a role in this year's statewide elections.
For NPR News, I'm Stephen Koranda in Topeka, Kansas.
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