More States Yank Teacher-Tenure Rug Calls for Better Schools and Desire to Trim Fat out of Public Budgets Are Behind the Backlash

Article excerpt

The horror stories of incompetent but irreplaceable teachers circulate in communities everywhere. The French teacher who can say little more than bonjour. The chemistry teacher who hasn't conducted an experiment in years.

Even when a teacher is clearly not doing the job, tenure laws in most states make it costly and time-consuming to fire experienced educators.

At a recent education summit, President Clinton cited the case of a high school math teacher in Illinois "who couldn't do basic algebra and let the students sleep in class." It cost the district $700,000 to fire that teacher.

Despite the obstacles, a growing number of states are moving to curb what has been one of the hallmarks of American education. The move to weaken teacher-tenure laws is prompted by calls for better schools and a public desire to trim the fat out of school budgets.

Wisconsin repealed tenure for new teachers last year, and South Dakota replaced its tenure provision with a law allowing districts to fire teachers for "just cause."

Pennsylvania and South Dakota both passed laws extending the number of years a teacher must work before being granted tenure, and North Carolina has a bill pending to phase out tenure protections.

"As dissatisfaction with our education system grows, a lot of people point the finger and say it's because so many teachers have tenure," says Russell Moore, principal of Shaker Junior High School in Latham, N.Y. "People are looking for somebody or something to blame, and tenure seems to be it."

"We've seen a backlash over the last several years," agrees Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

Job for life?

But the trend to curb tenure is running into tough opposition from teachers unions. The current backlash is based on a misunderstanding of what teacher tenure actually means, says John Dunlop, director of collective bargaining for the National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest teachers union.

In most states, teachers with three years of experience are granted tenure status. "In the popular mind, tenure means that you have a job for life," Mr. Dunlop says. "In fact, tenure is a fair treatment process. All it means is that if you dismiss somebody, you have to do it for cause, and there are certain procedural requirements."

The first tenure laws were passed 75 years ago to protect teachers from arbitrary dismissal. "The teacher's job is fraught with a degree of political peril because of the number of clientele they are dealing with and the kinds of social issues that are present in the classroom constantly," Dunlop says.

Many educators argue that tenure allows veteran teachers to stand up against trendy educational philosophies. "If I didn't have tenure, I would have been fired a long time ago," says Patty Abarca, an outspoken California teacher.

There's no question that good teachers deserve some protection from arbitrary dismissal, says Myron Lieberman, chairman of the Education Policy Institute in Washington. "But in many states, tenure laws have gone way beyond all rhyme or reason in the protections they give to teachers," he says. …