Missouri voters are likely to hear a lot about good teachers and local control in the coming months, as a costly campaign unfolds over a ballot proposal that would link teachers' salaries and jobs to the performance of their students.
The proposal, known as Constitutional Amendment 3, may be the most prominent item on the November ballot, which for the first time since 1990 lacks an election for one of the big three offices of president, U.S. Senate or governor.
The teacher-evaluation proposal is being bankrolled by prominent political activist Rex Sinquefield, an investment firm founder who has a history of spending millions of dollars on his favorite causes. It's opposed by a public education coalition financed largely by teachers' unions that are pledging a vigorous advertising effort.
The proposal would end tenure protections for newly hired teachers, who currently qualify for indefinite contracts after working for five years at a public school district. They instead could have contracts of no more than three years.
Starting next July, the measure also would require schools to adopt an evaluation system that relies largely on "quantifiable student performance data" to make decisions about paying and retaining staff.
A Sinquefield spokeswoman said he wasn't available to comment but pointed to a video posted on Sinquefield's website in which he says teacher tenure protections must be ended to improve education.
"We've got to have good teachers and get rid of the bad ones," Sinquefield says in the video.
Teachers' groups contend the measure fails to ensure students get the best possible instruction and could actually worsen their education by multiplying the number of standardized tests students must take.
With "more emphasis on the standardized testing, learning will change for students. They will end up becoming a number and test score as opposed to an individual who should be looked at and taught that way," said Mike Wood, the government relations director for the Missouri State Teachers Association.
Education groups assert that the ballot measure will take away local control from schools, drive up costs and force a one-size-fits-all approach for student testing and staff evaluations. They predict a tenfold increase in standardized tests, which currently are given only in core subjects in certain grades, but may have to be expanded to provide data for teacher evaluations.
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted new staff evaluation guidelines earlier this year that require student performance to be a significant factor. But the ballot measure would take that further by requiring a majority of the evaluation to be based on the data.
Teachers groups contend the ballot initiative would diminish local control by requiring the state department to approve their evaluation systems in order to receive taxpayer funding.
Kate Casas, a spokeswoman for the Teach Great organization sponsoring the initiative, described the amendment as a "minor adjustment" to evaluation methods. She said it could result in "much more local control," because superintendents and school boards could gain greater leeway to make staff changes.
Teach Great has received $1.8 million - nearly all of that from Sinquefield - to finance the initiative. It's likely to get millions of more dollars as the campaign progresses.
The Committee in Support of Public Education is leading the campaign against the measure. Wood said opponents have a budget of a little over $2 million, with about half of that coming from the National Education Association and its state chapter, about $500,000 from affiliates of the Missouri State Teachers Association and $250,000 from the American Federation of Teachers.
Opponents plan to run "significant" amounts of TV and radio ads as the election approaches, said Mike Sherman, a Minneapolis-based consultant who has been hired as a spokesman for the opposition campaign.
"This probably is going to be the big issue" for Missouri's elections, Sherman said. "You're going to be hearing about this a whole lot."