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The End Of Tenure?

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This sort of drawn-out scenario is not atypical when it comes to firing tenured teachers. But it soon could be a thing of the past in California if Gov. Pete Wilson gets his way. The state is one of several where school boards, legislators, or governors are hoping to dismantle all or part of their teacher-tenure laws. These opponents argue that the laws drive up district costs and require years of complicated legal maneuvering to dismiss even obviously incompetent educators. Some critics also argue that current laws make it too easy for teachers to get tenure.

Connecticut, Ohio, South Dakota, and Texas all have proposals in the works. Some would merely tinker with tenure laws; others, such as California's initiative, would wipe out the concept altogether.

Many national education observers expect to see the anti-tenure sentiment spread over the next few years. The political shift to the right, they say, has left teachers' unions--the longtime defenders of such job protections--more vulnerable. And the movement to make schools more accountable could have an impact, as well.

"I think this has been coming for quite a while,'' says Kathy Christie, director of the Education Commission of the States' information clearinghouse. Instead of dismissing poor or incompetent teachers, Christie notes, districts got used to shifting them to another building or position, which never really solves the problem. "Now,'' she says, "it's time to see results.''

In most states where it's being discussed, the tenure issue has focused on giving schools more freedom to remove ineffective teachers. This worries many teacher-union leaders, who reject claims that tenure protects incompetent educators from district intervention.

"This is nothing more than the right to due process that's found in any workplace,'' Jewell Gould, director of research for the American Federation of Teachers, says. Instead of going after tenure, Gould argues, states should focus on providing better professional support for beginning teachers. School administrators, he says, have to bear some of the burden by letting teachers know if their performance is not up to par and by helping them come up with ways to improve it.

Other tenure supporters agree, arguing that evaluating seasoned teachers more frequently and improving their professional development opportunities would enable school districts to identify educators who need help earlier--and would make changes in tenure laws unnecessary.

But critics say the laws have outlived their purpose. "Tenure is one of the last dinosaurs in public education,'' says Maureen DiMarco, Gov. Wilson's secretary of child development and education. "We check on the people who cut your hair more than the people who have your children's future in their hands.''

According to the National Education Association, all states currently have teacher-tenure laws on the books or some other provision giving teachers certain rights if they are fired. These laws were originally put in place to protect teachers from being dismissed for arbitrary reasons, such as religious beliefs or personal differences with school administrators.

Generally, tenured teachers must receive written notice and a statement of cause for their dismissal, and they have the right to a hearing before a school board or other panel before the final decision is made to fire them or not renew their contracts. Most states also give teachers the right to appeal such decisions in a court or before a state agency.

Among other things, the states currently examining their laws are trying to extend the time it takes a teacher to achieve tenure, strengthen or put in place evaluation procedures for achieving such status, or shorten what is often a long and expensive appeals process when teachers contest a school board's dismissal decision.

Gould of the AFT believes the states are on the wrong track. Raising standards--not scrapping tenure--would do more to make teachers and schools accountable, he says.

But DiMarco of California contends that union officials aren't being farsighted enough when it comes to rewriting tenure laws. "If they're smart, they'll look at this as an opportunity to elevate the profession,'' she says. "I don't know anyone who's more upset about a bad teacher than a good teacher.''

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