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In Push for Accountability, Tenure Becomes a Target

By Kerry A. White — June 25, 1997 4 min read

Critics refer to it as lifetime teacher tenure, while teachers, and the unions that represent them, use such terms as “fair dismissal” and “job protection.”

However they are described, the state laws that provide the ground rules for teacher dismissals have again come under scrutiny this year in legislatures across the country.

“The tenure conversation has been going on for quite some time,” said Kathie Christie, an analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. “But there’s been a rash of proposals [to reform tenure] over the last few years.”

The tenure debate arose as part of “a growing public demand for accountability at every level” in schools, said Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. “It’s a time when everyone is being challenged to accomplish more.”

The prominence of the issue can also be attributed to gains by Republicans in the governorships and legislatures in recent years. Many in the gop resent the pro-Democratic tilt of most teachers’ unions and believe that the unions put a higher value on job security than on school improvement. (“Union Interests Under Attack in Statehouses,” May 17, 1995.)

The job-security provisions known as teacher tenure describe the protection teachers have against unjust dismissals.

Typically, after completing a three- to five-year probationary period, a teacher remains employed by a district unless he or she is given a notice of nonrenewal or dismissal, a reason for doing so, and due process protections if he or she wants to contest the action.

State Action

Advocates for teacher tenure say that it guards qualified teachers from arbitrary dismissals. Before tenure, they say, teachers could be fired when school officials disagreed with their political leanings, when officials wanted to give a teaching job to a friend or relative, or when they wanted to save money by firing a senior teacher and hiring a rookie replacement.

“These laws do not give teachers a right to lifetime employment,” said Michael D. Simpson, the assistant general counsel for the National Education Association. “Bad teachers are easily and frequently fired.”

But opponents of teacher tenure argue that such laws make dismissing incompetent teachers prohibitively complicated and expensive--an argument that resonated this year in Florida, and played out in legislative proposals in, among other states, Colorado, New Hampshire, and New York.

In Florida, Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles recently approved a bill that reduces from one year to 90 days the amount of time a poor-performing teacher has to improve.

The law is a compromise between the state teachers’ unions and lawmakers in the majority Republican legislature, many of whom wanted to replace the system with renewable three-year contracts.

Commissioner of Education Frank T. Brogan, a Republican who is a zealous proponent of abolishing tenure, derisively refers to the new measure as “tenure lite.”

A bill requiring teachers in New Hampshire to pass subject competency tests and renew their contracts every three years passed in the Republican-controlled House and Senate this spring, but Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed the measure last week.

After a Colorado plan to abolish teacher tenure failed to gain momentum in the legislature, lawmakers there agreed to create a special task force to study the issue this summer.

A proposal being debated in the New York legislature would require teachers and school administrators to renew their licenses every five years.

Louis Grumet, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, has endorsed the plan. In an interview, he cited a 1994 association study showing that, under New York’s tenure system, it takes an average of 455 days and $177,000 to dismiss a teacher. With an appeal, the average price jumps to $317,000.

“Teachers should not be such a protected class,” Mr. Grumet said. “Incompetent and mediocre teachers should not be in the classroom.”

More Moderate Reform

Others are calling for the reform, not abolition, of teacher tenure. They say that too many schools fail to regularly monitor teachers and document performance deficiencies.

The debate should focus on “improving teacher preparation programs, professional development, and evaluation procedures,” Ms. Bryant of the NSBA said. “We need to promote an environment where teachers can achieve at the highest levels.

“No one wants to protect bad teachers,” she said.

Even the head of the NEA--an institution portrayed by opponents of tenure as the political Goliath to their David--agreed recently that the process for dismissing bad teachers should be “streamlined.”

“No one believes it should take four or five or six years to either get rid of a teacher who is ineffective or, and very importantly, to exonerate a teacher who has been falsely accused or falsely charged,” NEA president Bob Chase said in speech in February. “If there is a bad teacher in one of our schools, then we must do something about it.”


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