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Federal money isn't worth losing freedom in education

In what country could a professor be fired for showing a documentary in his classroom? China? North Korea? Saudi Arabia? How about the USA? The school was the College of DuPage in Illinois, where I taught English. The teacher was an adjunct histo...

In what country could a professor be fired for showing a documentary in his classroom? China? North Korea? Saudi Arabia?

How about the USA?

The school was the College of DuPage in Illinois, where I taught English. The teacher was an adjunct history professor who had shown Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 911" in class.

The conflict, in 2004, involved a conservative college president and board of trustees, concerned over the movie's unflattering portrayal of incumbent President George W. Bush. So they charged the professor with "campaigning" during school time, which could result in his dismissal.

The professor was utterly at their mercy, because he did not have tenure.

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Eventually, he was allowed to complete the term, thanks to the outcry on his behalf. But the damage was done, and a chill took hold on both free speech at the college and the exchange of ideas between teachers and students.

Today, tenure, or seniority-based job security, is the sacrificial lamb in President Obama's "Race to the Top" program, the contest inviting states to qualify for federal funds by implementing school reforms.

Delaware and Tennessee were big winners in the first round, and they expect to receive $100 million and $500 million, respectively, thanks to reforms they presented in March. Minne­sota came in 20th place.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, among others, blamed the state's poor showing on Education Minnesota, the teachers union, because the union did not endorse the application. Indeed, Race to the Top judges cited the low

12 percent of union leaders who endorsed the application as a major factor for not winning.

But why would any teachers union sign on to a plan that makes it easier to fire teachers? Is scrapping tenure worth a piece of the $4 billion dollar pie?

Critics contended that teachers are like any other employee and should be subject to extemporaneous dismissal at the discretion of principals or supervisors.

But the comparison is invalid because a school's business is knowledge and truth, not profits and commodities. Tenure was established to protect a teacher's duty to purvey truth against all pressures, be they political, social or economic.

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Tenure ensures academic freedom to teach not only films but also important concepts such as evolution and classic texts such as "Huckleberry Finn," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Catcher in the Rye," all of which were banned at times by school districts, some as recently as 2009.

Tenure also made it possible when I was teaching high school to withstand annual administrative pressure to change the grades of athletes or to lower class-failure rates if they reflected poorly on my school's report card.

And tenure gives teachers confidence to maintain discipline and protect students, such as when I had to use physical force against one youth assaulting another with a geometry compass, or when I had to tackle a drug pusher in a school stairwell, or when I conducted a search of a pupil intimidating others in the hallway. I found he had a switchblade in his coat pocket.

Without tenure, I might have balked at taking any of those actions. I might have worried, instead, about avoiding lawsuits and keeping my job.

There are 50,000 teachers in Minnesota, many with their own laundry lists of tough decisions made for their students, thanks to the safeguard of tenure.

Yes, there are abuses. Tenure occasionally extends to incompetents.

But schools can develop new teacher evaluation programs. They can establish committees composed of faculty and administrators to evaluate an individual teacher's performance in class management, academic rigor, ability to gauge student needs, and his or her preparedness, creativity, consistency, communication skills, and other factors the committee collectively formulates in its rubric for good teaching while preserving the value of tenure.

Politicians lacking education expertise are willing to dismantle schools for 30 pieces of silver from Race to the Top. Minnesota parents should be relieved they were thwarted.

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David McGrath of Hayward has been a teacher for 35 years and is the author of "The Territory." Contact him at profmcgrath2004 @yahoo.com.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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