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Bill To Ax Tenure for Milwaukee Teachers Advances

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Wisconsin legislators last week repealed a law that gives tenure to Milwaukee County teachers after three years on the job.

Both chambers of the legislature passed by voice vote a measure that would strip away the job security enjoyed by public school teachers in the city of Milwaukee and 17 surrounding districts for nearly 60 years.

No teacher who already has tenure would lose it under the bill.

Gov. Tommy G. Thompson is expected to sign the legislation into law. He introduced a similar measure as part of his state spending plan earlier this year, but that provision was dropped during the budget process, according to Senate aides.

An Issue in '96

Making it tougher for teachers to get tenure looks to be a popular issue for debate in a number of states during next year's legislative sessions. In recent weeks, governors including Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania and George Pataki in New York have talked of making changes in tenure laws, and Virginia's state schools superintendent, William C. Bosher, has proposed abolishing tenure altogether. Both governors are Republicans, as is Mr. Thompson. Mr. Bosher was appointed by Republican Gov. George Allen.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, a Washington-based policy group that advocates market-oriented policy options, is also designing model bills to abolish tenure that it hopes to circulate next year.

"Good teachers don't need tenure," said Allyson M. Tucker, an education consultant working with ALEC to design the model law. "They will keep their jobs on their own. It's the bad teachers who need tenure."

An Exclusive Protection

In Wisconsin, Milwaukee County teachers are the only ones granted tenure by the state. A citizens' referendum in the late 1930's took away tenure from all Wisconsin teachers, but the legislature restored it for the county's teachers a few years later.

Efforts to change or repeal that law have been waged for almost a quarter-century, said Sen. Alberta Darling, the chairwoman of the Senate education committee and the sponsor of this year's bill.

Backers of the measure argued that it was unfair for teachers in Milwaukee County to enjoy such job protection while their colleagues in the rest of the state's more than 400 districts did not.

Others said the tenure law was hampering reform efforts, particularly those in the Milwaukee city district. Only one city teacher with tenure has been fired in the last three years, Sen. Darling said.

"You almost have to commit a criminal act to be terminated," she said.

Tenure proponents said removing the protection would hinder the Milwaukee city district's teacher-recruiting efforts. The move would do little to improve the city's schools, said Rep. David A. Cullen of Milwaukee, a former president of the city school board.

"There's no correlation shown between poor performance of schools and teacher tenure," said Mr. Cullen. "It was really more teacher bashing than education reform."

Both critics and supporters of the bill said Republicans' capture of legislative control in 1994 was the key to the bill's passage.

Critics said the GOP was taking a swipe at the powerful teachers' unions in the state, which have been longtime supporters of Democrats. Collective-bargaining powers have been curbed and strike prohibitions strengthened in several states where Republicans claimed new legislative majorities last year. Limiting tenure, it appears, may be the next target. (See Education Week, May 17, 1995.)

The Wisconsin bill "moved this year because the Republican legislature is punishing teachers," Mr. Cullen said.

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