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
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Wisconsin repealed tenure for new teachers last year, and South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
"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
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. …