Few issues in education trigger such fierce reactions as teacher tenure. With workers in the private sector still being laid off in the protracted recession, there is great resentment about the job protection that tenure laws seemingly provide. Rather than rehash the usual arguments made in defense of tenure, I’m going to focus exclusively on two recent events that made the news because they serve as cautionary tales. They both involve teachers in large urban school districts who had the courage to blow the whistle on blatantly illegal practices at their respective schools.
The first is Harris Lirtzman. As a former deputy New York State comptroller before becoming a public school teacher at 53, he had enough knowledge to know when special education students were being deprived of their rights. When Lirtzman complained to his principal, Grismaldy Laboy-Wilson, he was denied tenure at the Felisa Rincón de Gautier Institute for Law and Public Policy in New York City (“On Special Education, Spurned Teacher Is Vindicated,” The New York Times, Jul 6).
His predicament was compounded when he informed the investigative arm of New York City’s Education Department, which proceeded to investigate him. Fed up, he retired even though he was considered an exemplary teacher. The irony is that Lirtzman taught at a school that is supposed to teach students about law and public policy. His dismissal makes a mockery of the school’s mission. Only a few days ago, Lirtzman received in the mail his final evaluation from Laboy-Wilson. He was rated satisfactory over all, although he received an unsatisfactory rating for not keeping a professional attitude and for not maintaining good relations with his supervisors.
The second is Bruno Mpoy. He was fired from Ludlow Elementary School in the District of Columbia after he told former Chancellor Michelle Rhee that his principal had instructed teachers to “change and falsify student records, to alter test scores on standardized assessments, and to fabricate levels of student achievement” (“Federal Judge allows cheating lawsuit from 2007-08 against Michelle Rhee to continue,” Education News, Jul. 10). The judge allowed the suit to continue under the D.C. Whistleblower Act and the D.C. Human Rights Act, along with breach of contract, retaliation and wrongful termination.
If tenure were abolished, as reformers urge, I wonder how many teachers would be willing to speak out against even the most egregious violations in their schools. The reality is that the state education code, board of education policies and court rulings give principals enormous power. The only protection that teachers have is the existence of tenure laws that guarantee due process and the existence of their unions. But with both tenure and unions in the crosshairs of reformers, I expect to see teachers ever more reluctant to stick their necks out. Even if they are not fired outright, principals can make their lives miserable by subtle harassment. Given the consequences, I don’t blame teachers one bit for keeping quiet.
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.