Education Opinion

Teacher Tenure Has a Bleak Future

By Walt Gardner — March 15, 2017 2 min read
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Tenure for teachers in K-12 has long been controversial but never more so than today. Whether it will even exist going forward is problematic, as events in North Carolina and Colorado illustrate (“Hands Off My Tenure! Education Next, Spring).

When North Carolina tried to abolish teacher tenure in 2013, the North Carolina Association of Educators sued in NCAE v. State, arguing that the new law violated the North Carolina Constitution’s prohibition on taking property without just compensation and the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against “impairing the Obligation of Contracts.” In 2014, a trial court agreed that the new law violated the property and contractual rights of already tenured teachers but not the rights of new teachers. An appellate upheld the decision, and the case will be heard before the state supreme court.

In 2010, the Colorado Legislature passed the Great Teachers and Leaders Act. Its principal aim was to eliminate the “forced placement” of teachers, also called the Dance of the Lemons. The new law established a mutual consent policy by which both the receiving school’s administration and teacher representatives had to approve new placements. Displaced teachers who could not find a school willing to accept them were placed on paid leave for 12 months, after which time they were placed on unpaid leave. In 2014, a trial court rejected the union’s argument, ruling that displacement is not the same as dismissal. But in 2015, that ruling was overturned by an appellate court. The Colorado Supreme Court will hear the case this year.

I recited the above because details in law are crucial. I’m not a lawyer, but I believe that the highest courts in both states will hold that teachers already having tenure cannot be stripped of that protection. But if I read the tea leaves correctly, new teachers will no longer receive tenure. Instead, they will be placed on short-term contracts. These will spell out in great detail the grounds for failure to renew.

The larger question is whether that scenario is a step in the right direction in improving educational quality. I say it is not because it opens the door to all kinds of abuses. We like to think that principals are always objective and fair in how they treat all their teachers. That’s not true. Tenure came into existence because teachers were once powerless. Their jobs were dependent on remaining on favorable terms with their principal. But there are many exemplary teachers who are highly effective in the classroom with their students but who rankle their principal in one way or another. For example, some question policies at faculty meetings, becoming a nuisance in the eyes of principals who would be only too glad to see them gone.

That’s why I oppose the elimination of tenure.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.