teacherLike many states, New Jersey has been grappling with the issue of teacher tenure in its government schools. Now, a major tenure reform bill sponsored by State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D) is gaining steam in the state legislature. It would restructure tenure around a “teacher effectiveness and evaluation” procedure focussed on student performance--including test scores--purportedly easing the process of getting rid of bad teachers.

The “evaluation” part of the bill is the most controversial, and with good reason. It would place all teachers under the thumb of a new bureaucratic monstrosity.

In brief, every teacher would face annual evaluations by a panel of teachers and administrators from his school. After two consecutive years of poor evaluations, a teacher would lose tenure, pending a 30-day appeal option (which means it would still take more than two years to remove an incompetent teacher).

Each district would fashion its own evaluation method and submit it to the state education commissioner, who would have the power to substitute a state model if he disapproves of what the district has offered.

What could go wrong?

Here are just a few things: The evaluation standards and criteria would be a constantly changing mix dictated by the politically advantaged special interests of the moment. For example, there is much debate over the proper way to measure a student’s academic progress, and how much those measurements should count in the evaluation. Gov. Christie wants student test scores to count for half the evaluation, while others want much less emphasis. Senator Ruiz favors “a broad array of criteria, including that they be ‘partially based on multiple objective measures of student learning’” (whatever that means in the mind of a statist).

This scheme would give new meaning to the term “teaching to the test.” Teachers would not only have to teach to government-approved tests; they would have to teach to government-approved tests, standards, criteria, and random opinions that constantly shift according to political winds of the moment. Every school board election, state election, and newly hired school superintendent would bring yet another evaluation plan to the mix. Education would become even more of a Heraclitian flux than it is today.

And whereas the original purpose of tenure was, in theory, to protect public school teachers from political cronyism, this new bureaucracy would create ample opportunity for a new, more ominous type of cronyism: Teachers better take care not to be on the outs with their school’s ever-changing status quo.

None of this is necessary, but for the government’s virtual monopoly over K-12 education. As I’ve noted, and as everyone who understands economics 101 knows, the free market is inherently equipped to seamlessly deal with the issue of teacher competency and accountability.

The same is true regarding tenure. In a genuine free market, every school would be free to establish its own employment policies. Government would have no role. Since schools, like any for-profit business, must satisfy their customers, any school that instituted tenure (or other) policies that damaged its educational quality wouldn’t stay in business for long. And whereas a good teacher unfairly dismissed today has few options, in a free market he would have abundant career opportunities.

Free-market education makes the controversies of teacher accountability and tenure politically moot. The solution to both problems is simply to erect a Jeffersonian wall of separation between government and education.

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Image: iStockPhoto

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