The governor has made elimination of tenure one of the 14 provisions in his recently unveiled and largely-praised education-reform package.
This is a curious goal, given that traditionally defined teacher tenure -- making it difficult or impossible to remove incompetent or bad teachers -- was eliminated from Colorado public education back in 1990.
Allyn Kratz, executive director of the Pikes Peak Education Association, suspects Owens of deliberate misconstruction to win political points with the lay public and to mask his real goal of turning teachers into at-will employees that is, employees that can be fired at the discretion of their employers.
"There's not a public teacher in Colorado having tenure," he explained.
Currently, during their first three years, teachers are on probation and can be fired for any reason. After that, they, graduate to what is called "non-probationary status," meaning they can be fired for any reason stipulated by state education statutes, including incompetence, unsatisfactory job performance, mental instability, unethical behavior and violating the law.
"No teacher is exempt," Kratz said. "All are subject to being removed by way of a due-process procedure where charges are leveled and a hearing is conducted involving the teacher, the school board and district administrators."
The process requires that either a mutually acceptable third party or a state administrative-law judge be assigned to act as a hearing officer and to recommend what action should be taken by the school board.
"A teacher against whom no termination action has been taken can anticipate a job the ensuing year," said Kratz, "but that hardly constitutes tenure."
Specifically, Owens' proposal would eliminate "non-probationary status," meaning public-school teachers would become at-will employees and subject to firing at any time without the due process currently in place. The bill, sponsored by Colorado Springs Republican Rep. Hefley, is expected to be introduced this month in the Legislature. She was unavailable for comment as of press time.
Kratz suggested that Owens is calling his plan the elimination of tenure to make his real goal more palatable to the lay public.
"Ask John Q. Public if a teacher should have due process," he noted, "and he'll likely say yes, but ask him if he should have tenure and he'll say no. Owens knows that."
More efficient, less costly
This week, Owens' press secretary, Dick Wadhams, argued that tenure has been abolished in Colorado "in name only."
Owens has maintained that making teachers at-will employees would give school districts more flexibility to rid themselves of undesirable teachers.
State Rep. Keith King, a Colorado Springs Republican, said he supports the measure because of the convenience and cost-saving advantage for school districts.
King cited as an example one situation when, while he was serving as a board member in Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, the district spent $60,000 in legal fees and salaries to remove a teacher in a due-process case, even though the principal had recommended termination.
"There needs to be a more efficient and less costly way to remove undesirable teachers," King said.
Rep. Dan Grossman, a Denver Democrat, sees it differently.
"I haven't seen anything to indicate a systemic problem with inability to fire bad teachers," he said. "I'm all for giving schools flexibility in hiring and firing, but turning teachers into at-will employees isn't our best way to achieve that, because the bottom-line idea behind due process rights is to protect teachers from political fallout and infighting within school districts."
Deborah Fallin, spokesperson for the 32,000-member Colorado Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, said, "Due-process rights are [teachers'] sole job security. Losing those rights for new hires would create a two-tier class of teachers."
Why stay here?
Educators believe Owens' proposal presents another potential problem looming for Colorado public education. Experts are warning of a nationwide teacher shortage, with up to 50 percent of the current teacher workforce retiring in the next five years.
With the prospect of more teaching positions than candidates to fill them, intense bidding wars are developing between states and between school districts within states to hire the most qualified candidates.
Last year, the Texas Legislature established a minimum starting salary of $31,000 for new teachers, with signing bonuses of up to $10,000.
By comparison, El Paso County's new-teacher salaries average around $23,500 a year. Noting that, across the board, Colorado teachers are paid below the national average, Kratz warned that eliminating due-process rights could further damage school districts' ability to hire outstanding candidates in coming years.
And, as Colorado lawmakers begin debating whether to kill due process for teachers, other states are offering incentives to attract and help draw new graduates.
Last week, New York Gov. George Pataki asked his state legislature for tuition subsidies for college students who commit to teach in New York public schools. In California, Gov. Gray Davis has proposed $11,000 to help repay college loans for each candidate agreeing to teach in low-performance schools and $30,000 bonuses for teachers achieving advanced certification.
"Why," Kratz wondered, "would a candidate in high demand choose to teach in a system with lower pay and without due-process rights when all 49 other states guarantee those rights?"