Education

Romney Likes to Fire People, But Will He Fire Teachers?

A look at the education planks in the two party platforms

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If you've been watching the Democratic National Convention this week, you may have heard that Mitt Romney likes to fire people. About a million times.

The full Romney quote, from a January speech, is "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone doesn't give me the good service I need, I want to say, 'I'm going to go get someone else to provide that service to me.'" He was talking about health insurance, but he could just as well have been talking about education.

But when it comes to firing teachers, how much daylight is there between the two parties?

In the Democratic platform, the education plank boasts that under Obama our "economy [will] out-educate the world," and goes to great lengths to highlight all the teaching jobs the president has shielded from the economic downturn. "Because there is no substitute for a great teacher at the head of a classroom, the President helped school districts save more than 400,000 educator jobs."

Alert readers will note that the two parts of that sentence have little to do with each other. Spending billions to keep existing teachers on state payrolls—primarily money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. the stimulus) as well as the Education Jobs Fund—is mostly unrelated to the process of putting great teachers in front of kids. The relationship only works if public schools are stocked with top teachers and operating like well-oiled machines. But the rest of the Democratic platform is littered with phrases like "achievement gap," "dropout crisis," and "struggling public schools," which suggest that there is room for improvement.

But Democrats want to bring about that improvement with carrot alone: "We Democrats honor our nation's teachers, who do a heroic job for their students every day….The President has laid out a plan to prevent more teacher layoffs while attracting and rewarding great teachers. This includes raising standards for the programs that prepare our teachers, recognizing and rewarding good teaching, and retaining good teachers." No one gets fired! Raises! Job security!

In the Democratic platform, the ying of retaining and rewarding good teachers has no yang of firing the bad ones, or even allowing them to be laid off in times of economic crisis. Of course, in most districts it isn't the lowest-performing teachers who get the boot when the budget gets tight, it's the youngest, thanks to union-inspired seniority policies.

The closest the platform gets to admitting the existence of sucky or even ok-ish instructors is this carefully crafted passage: "We also believe in carefully crafted evaluation systems that give struggling teachers a chance to succeed and protect due process if another teacher has to be put in the classroom." But closer inspection reveals that this is actually a sop to teachers unions. The message: We believe in rigging any evaluation system to allow maximum wiggle room and opportunities for union appeals.

Democrats don't get (or choose to ignore) the fact that stocking the nation's public school classrooms with great teachers necessarily requires clearing out the bad and middling ones. Some teachers are heroic, but most aren't. Teaching is a job. An important job, to be sure. But so is telephone sanitzer. And one thing about a job is that you can get fired from it. 

So does the GOP platform reveal more willingness to talk about booting some teachers from the classroom? A little.

Republicans do their share of sucking up to teachers and eliding the different between great teachers and all teachers in their education plank, declaring that "We applaud America's great teachers" and backing "merit pay for good teachers." The platform hints at getting rid of subpar educators with the phrase "hold teachers and administrators responsible for student performance," but doesn't quite come out and argue for trimming the dead wood.

Republicans are more direct in their platform's discussion of the overall failures of the current system. In fact, the word failing even shows up in the section on school choice: "School choice—whether through charter schools, open enrollment requests, college lab schools, virtual schools, career and technical education programs, vouchers, or tax credits—is important for all children, especially for families with children trapped in failing schools." 

And they're willing to point the finger of blame at unions for some of those problems: "We support legislation that will correct the current law provision which defines a 'Highly Qualified Teacher' merely by his or her credentials, not results in the classroom…Rigid tenure systems based on the 'last in, first out' policy should be replaced with a merit-based approach that can attract fresh talent and dedication to the classroom."

But in the end, no one wants their education plank to be a downer, and Romney hasn't exactly embraced his reputation as axman-in-chief. When it comes to party platforms, it seems, all the teachers are above average.