Fear Of Censorship Has Little To Do With Teacher Tenure Reform
In yesterday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Frank LoMonte writes that teacher tenure reform might result in public school journalism teachers being punished for helping students report on contentious topics.
But there can be no debate on how ending tenure will impact the teaching of journalism in public schools. It will effectively end it.
As a graduate of the University of Missouri’s journalism school, I cannot help but sympathize with LoMonte’s fear. But I am not sure that it is grounded in much reality.
Free speech is already limited in schools. LoMonte does not mention this, but high school newspapers are not forums for free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court (in a case that originated in Hazelwood, Mo., no less) ruled in 1988 that school administrators could censor drafts of the high school newspaper if they can demonstrate that there is an educational purpose for the censorship. Currently, students cannot freely report on any topic they wish.
Administrators already can (and do) punish journalism teachers. LoMonte lists several ways that journalism teachers can be punished for encouraging students to question the operations of their schools. He writes that teachers can be fired, demoted, or transferred as punishment. But arguing that these options will become available if teacher tenure reform is passed is incorrect. Demotion and transferal are already available to school administrators if they want to punish teachers. Firing is as well, though it is very difficult.
The following cases that LoMonte recounts are deplorable:
Teachers like Darryl Adams, who was stripped of his journalism duties after his principal questioned his loyalty for refusing to censor an editorial critical of the school’s random student searches. Teachers like Teri Hu, who was reassigned — and whose students were threatened with discipline — after the newspaper accurately revealed that the school was out of compliance with district regulations on the use of teaching assistants.
But they are all possible under Missouri’s existing teacher tenure law.
Journalism teachers are a small fraction of the total teaching force in Missouri. Perhaps some marginal number of journalism teachers will be fired if teacher tenure reform passes. And, perhaps their firings will be due to encouraging students to pursue meaningful and contentious journalism. I agree that this is a disturbing possibility. But many of our smallest districts likely have no student paper. Elementary, middle, and high school math teachers, for example, certainly outnumber journalism teachers significantly.
In life, there are always difficult trade-offs. And we have to consider whether preserving the jobs of a few good journalism teachers is worth keeping teachers who have a track record of failing students in the classroom. I would argue that illiterate students and students who cannot do simple arithmetic are problems that we need to address first.
Student speech exists outside of the classroom. Sadly, LoMonte ignores the possibility that students can exercise their right to free speech openly and outside of the classroom. When I was in high school, I was part of a group of students that started a monthly print newspaper during our free time — because we knew that the student paper could, thanks to that Supreme Court decision, be censored.
We wrote about high school dropouts, janitors who had been hired despite having a criminal record, and other topics that likely would have been tough to have printed in the official school newspaper. Given the rebellious nature of most teenagers, and the ease of online publishing, I trust that students will continue to express their right to free speech, even if they cannot do it within the pages of a district-financed paper.