Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
For many years, tenured public school teachers in Michigan could be discharged only for "reasonable and just cause." Former MCL 38.101; Satterfield v Grand Rapids Pub Schools Bd of Ed, 219 Mich App 435, 437; 556 NW2d 888 (1996). The school district seeking to terminate the teacher bore the burden of proving reasonable and just cause. Comstock Pub Schools v Wildfong, 92 Mich App 279, 284; 284 NW2d 527 (1979). This standard required "significant evidence proving that [the] teacher is unfit to teach." Lewis v Bridgman Pub Schools (On Remand), 279 Mich App 488, 496; 760 NW2d 242 (2008); Benton Harbor Area Schools Bd of Ed v Wolff, 139 Mich App 148, 154; 361 NW2d 750 (1984). A teacher was not considered unfit to teach merely because the school board disagreed with his or her teaching philosophy or particular teaching style. See Beebee v Haslett Pub Schools, 406 Mich 224, 229-231; 278 NW2d 37 (1979).
The Michigan Legislature has now amended the Teacher Tenure Act to provide that a tenured public school teacher may be discharged for any reason "that is not arbitrary or capricious." MCL 38.101(1); see also Cona v Avondale School Dist, 303 Mich App 123, 137; 842 NW2d 277 (2013). This new standard is much broader than the former "reasonable and just cause" standard; it permits a local school board to discharge a tenured teacher for any reason that is not grounded in prejudice, animus, or improper motives.
The question, then, is whether a Michigan school board may now discharge a tenured teacher simply because it disagrees with his or her teaching style or philosophy. Under the new standard, sadly, it appears that the answer to this question is "yes." Unless it can be shown that the school board is motivated by prejudice, caprice, or personal animus, the board would be legally justified in terminating the teacher for conduct that was previously protected under the umbrella of academic freedom.
I am certainly no expert on teaching or educational policy, but I'm fairly certain that this is not a positive step forward. For example, local school board members should not be permitted to fire an otherwise-excellent science teacher—who happens to discuss evolution and global climate change in class—simply to appease local community members who oppose the teaching of these subjects. The entire purpose of academic freedom is to give teachers the necessary leeway to communicate ideas to their pupils that may be inconvenient to, or disfavored by, external community groups.
Teachers are directly subject to the changing political will of locally elected school boards. Two of the objectives of tenure for K-12 teachers are (1) to protect teachers from this changing political will, and (2) to protect pupils from disruptive changes in the teaching staff each time a new school board majority comes to power. The recent amendment to Michigan's Teacher Tenure Act may prove to undermine these goals.