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Critics Target Teacher Tenure, But Most Blows Miss the Mark

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President Clinton joined a long line of policymakers and reformers when he took a swipe at teacher tenure in his speech at last month's education summit.

Job protection for teachers has become a popular rhetorical punching bag. From the president down, many lawmakers and top state officials--including more than half a dozen governors--have tried to modify tenure in the past year. But most have missed.

"There ought to be a fair process for removing teachers who aren't competent," Mr. Clinton told the governors and business leaders gathered in Palisades, N.Y, adding that states "need a system that doesn't look the other way if a teacher is burned out or not performing up to standards."

A few states such as South Dakota and Wisconsin have reworked their tenure laws recently. But in many other states, tenure is surviving the heavy scrutiny and outlasting the attacks that seem to be coming from every direction.

"With tenure, you're charging up the hill just to stare into the mouth of a cannon," said Michael Latimore, the director of education policy for the Minnesota Business Partnership. The group supported Gov. Arne H. Carlson's proposal to rewrite that state's tenure law, but legislation never even came to a vote.

"It's one of those things that gets a lot of attention in the media, but nothing much happens," added Myron Lieberman, a tenure critic and a senior research scholar at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "In the past 20 years, tenure has gotten stronger, not weaker."

Tabloid-Like Tales

As in previous debates about teacher tenure, this year's talk has featured tabloid-style tales of the bad-apple teacher who couldn't be fired.

"Next, getting rid of deadwood," ABC's Hugh Downs said as the tease for a "20/20" television newsmagazine story about teacher tenure. That February report described districts' difficulties in firing a teacher who allegedly slammed a student's head against a wall, another who threatened children with knives, and others who had sex with their pupils.

President Clinton himself cited a case in Illinois in which a district reportedly spent $700,000 to dismiss a high school math teacher "who couldn't do basic algebra and let the students sleep in class."

Teachers usually earn tenure after two or three years on the job. New Jersey enacted the first tenure law for teachers about 75 years ago, according to the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based policy-research group. Most states now protect teachers from arbitrary dismissals, and some districts agree to such protections in negotiating teacher contracts.

A district that wants to fire a tenured teacher typically must undertake a lengthy process of hearings and appeals. After the administrative process, a dismissal may be challenged in court.

Lawmakers will often vote to preserve tenure because they believe the anecdotal evidence of its failure is the exception and not the norm, officials of state teachers' unions say.

But despite tenure's resiliency, new political, economic, and education trends are ready-made to breed conflicts over obstacles to dismissing teachers. (See chart next page.)

A record number of Republicans won statehouse elections in 1994, and some of them came to office as sworn enemies of teachers' unions, which traditionally have favored Democrats.

Limiting the strong job protections afforded teachers also seems to strike a chord with many people anxious about their own job security in an era of corporate downsizing. In New York state, where a battle over tenure in a Long Island district has made national news, education officials said that residents showed up at district meetings to criticize tenure.

Meanwhile, some education leaders connect their push for tenure changes to a renewed emphasis on standards-based reform--the theme of the governors' summit.

Said Eugene W. Hickok, Pennsylvania's secretary of education: "If you're going to tighten standards for student learning--and make those standards have consequences--then we ought to do the same thing for teachers."

Talk, But Little Action

Talk about reforming teacher-tenure laws has led to some change. The new Republican majority in the Wisconsin legislature last year repealed tenure for new teachers in Milwaukee County. The teachers in the county's 17 districts were the last in the state to enjoy such job protections. (See Education Week, Nov. 22, 1995.)

South Dakota's Republican legislature also repealed its law and replaced it with one that permits a district to terminate a teacher for "just cause."

But in other states, high-profile efforts to ax or rewrite tenure laws failed. The California Assembly, which is narrowly controlled by the gop, killed three separate tenure bills in January despite Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's stated goal of abolishing tenure for teachers. Minnesota's Democratic legislature ducked the issue even after Republican Gov. Carlson called on it to "put a premium on excellence, not seniority."

Talk of tenure change also has fizzled in states such as Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia.

In many cases, the debates start with inflammatory examples of tenure abuses. But the horror stories are usually not enough to overcome teacher unions' strong political organization and conflicting public sentiment.

When they are accompanied by attacks on the quality of teaching, tenure challenges often backfire, said Eleanor Dillon, the director of legislation and school-related personnel with the Michigan Federation of Teachers.

The perks enjoyed by Michigan teachers' unions have become a favorite target of Republican Gov. John Engler and the state's Republican legislature.

"John Engler would love to get rid of teacher tenure," said Ms. Dillon, "but it's a hot potato, and it's too hot to handle right now."

And while GOP lawmakers in Michigan have settled some scores with the unions, they have yet to erode tenure protections.

Union officials often argue that tenure is needed to protect teachers from arbitrary firings motivated by school board politics. Sometimes it is hard to know whether it is such arguments or the unions' campaign war chests that carry clout.

Shifting Winds

In New York, the state school boards' association cannot even find a Senate sponsor for its proposal to replace teacher tenure with renewable contracts.

Louis Grumet, the group's executive director, said that has a lot to do with the bankroll of the New York State United Teachers, which spent more than $3 million on lobbying and campaign contributions in the 1994 election cycle, more than any other special-interest group in the state.

"All that's holding us back is the power of NYSUT's money," Mr. Grumet said.

Often, in the end, tenure-overhaul bills do not have a natural constituency to fight the unions and sustain their momentum through legislatures, Mr. Lieberman of Bowling Green State said.

The California School Boards Association recently recommended changes to that state's tenure law.

But in Texas last year, some urban school board members lobbied in support of "continuing contracts"--the state's version of tenure--because they are an important teacher-recruiting tool.

Many school administrators and school boards' groups hesitate to join the fray because a debate about bad teachers would harm schools' reputations, Mr. Lieberman argued.

"When administrators fight it, they risk giving schools a very big black eye," he said. "So there are incentives for administrators not to do anything."

Still, President Clinton's comments, which were not seen as antagonistic by teachers' union officials, may signal growing public support for reconsidering tenure, said Mr. Grumet of the New York school boards' group.

As the governor of Arkansas, Mr. Clinton instituted a competency test for teachers.

"The president is someone who follows the winds of public opinion incredibly well," Mr. Grumet said, "and he's telling us which way the winds are blowing on this right now."

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