|You have seen them in your community. Individuals who approach you in parking lots located outside grocery stores, gas stations and the post office. Clipboard in hand, they are looking for a signature - your signature - to help ensure that a particular issue is placed before voters in an upcoming election. The process sounds as democratic and grass roots as we expect it to be - the very essence of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The reality is something very different.
One petition circulating currently focuses on making teachers "at will" employees, and eliminating the due process rights granted by Missouri's teacher tenure. It's nothing like the tenure laws you read about in New York or California. The law doesn't protect teachers performing poorly and it doesn't make it difficult to remove an underperforming teacher from the classroom. What it does do though is create a defined process that a district needs to follow when it does seek termination. Simply put, it requires the same t's be crossed and i's be dotted that would be expected of any privately run business with contracted employees. It may be a small modicum of protection, but it's protection all the same.
With that one paragraph of knowledge, you now have more information than any signature gatherer will ever give you. Remember, their goal is to get you to sign. They may be making as much as $1.50 per signature to get you to put pen to paper. You might be asked as you place groceries in the back of your car if you want to help teachers save their jobs. A quick scan of your children climbing into the back seat to buckle up might prompt the petitioner to inform you that third-grade teachers will not have a position next year if you fail to sign. No logical rationale is given for this if/then proposition. You are given a scenario that sounds dire and are expected to make a snap judgment while you finish packing the car and begin thinking of the next item on your busy to-do list.
A signature gatherer and the company that employs them do not expect you to dig deeper and ask how teachers would keep their jobs without tenure. No one believes you will question a statement such as "teachers in Missouri want the tenure law repealed." Of course, there hasn't been any research showing such a statement to be true, but if a gatherer can get your signature using any means, then honesty and integrity are irrelevant.
You may want to learn more about teacher tenure before you make a decision. You may believe that teachers should be protected when their job is on the line. Then again, many of you may not care either way. What I hope you do care about though is that a democratic process, as straight forward as a petition drive, is being marginalized and reduced to a door-to-door sales pitch delivered by dispassionate hired guns who think very little about the tenure and even less about your opinion. Think of this as the human version of robotic calls that many of us hang up on during the election season.
If someone asking for your signature to save teacher jobs in Missouri approaches you in the next month, make sure you ask exactly how jobs will be saved. Ask if this petition is really about tenure and if so, why should we eliminate tenure for public school teachers? What differences will this petition for a place on the ballot really make for schools, teachers, parents and most importantly children?
You may not have time to ask any of these questions. After all, like cold water to the face, you were shocked out of your daily activity by a hired signature gatherer with knowledge of only a small portion of the overall picture. You need more time to learn the real story about tenure for public school teachers in Missouri, so you decline to sign for now and possibly forever.
Given all your options, not signing may be the most democratic action you could take.
Commentary by Bruce Moe, Missouri State Teachers Association Executive Director