Terry McAteer: A frank conversation about tenure
The topic of teacher tenure would always arise in my discussions with the general public during my years as a county Superintendent of Schools.
Tenure is a sacred topic in the education world and is rarely discussed but often relied upon. For the most part, the general public is adamantly opposed to the concept of tenure as a guaranteed job for life. As with most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
The concept of tenure for teachers gained momentum during the McCarthy witch-hunt era of the 1950s. Public school teachers and university professors, rightly so, feared that their freedom of speech was being impinged upon by the threat of communism, supposedly pervasive in academic circles. Teachers collectivized their need for legal protection through the establishment of unions — primarily the California Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers. These organizations pushed through state legislature tenure laws to protect a teacher’s ability to speak freely in the classroom in order to encourage open dialogue. If one looks at tenure laws based on freedom of speech principles alone, it certainly has merit.
Over the many decades, tenure laws have been refined and strengthened mainly by the efforts of the most powerful and lucrative lobbying entity in the State of California — the California Teachers Association. Under current law, after a teacher is employed for two years he or she is automatically entitled to tenure. No longer does tenure just apply to freedom of speech activities, but general classroom performance. Yes, it is true that after two years it is exceedingly difficult to dismiss a tenured teacher for poor performance; it is time consuming and very costly. Lawyers I personally dealt with throughout the years regarding this issue would quote a three-year intensive documentation process and $100,000 in legal fees.
Let’s face it, as in any profession there are superb, mediocre and poor employees. The teaching ranks have the same percentages, with some stellar teachers and some poor ones. The public, and rightfully so, is peeved about the concept of its tax dollars going to support poor teachers due to the tenure laws. While the general public is highly supportive of public education, especially in Nevada County, a compromise on this topic needs to be reached by the legislature to protect teaching freedoms but also allowing for the ability, through a meaningful process, to let poor teachers find another profession.
In Los Angeles Unified and other large school districts, there is an actual room where administrators assign poor performing teachers to show up every day and just sit there. Yes, they get full pay, but the district has determined that having these teachers in a classroom is more detrimental to students and might incur for the district further lawsuits than to just pay them to sit and do nothing.
In smaller districts, teachers know who the good and poor teachers are and administrators try to put the low performers in assignments that have the least amount of harm to students and the district. With a statewide teacher shortage, many marginal teachers bounce from district to district in what former Gov. Schwarzenegger called the “dance of lemons.”
In reality, good teachers don’t need tenure to protect them. As a private high school teacher for many years, I never had tenure. As a public high school teacher, I never needed it except for the freedom of academic expression. I believe that the vast majority of educators would support some modification if it led to increased support — both fiscal and in public opinion — toward public education.
School districts would love to negotiate tenure boundaries but laws are left in the domain of the state legislature. Our neighbor to the north, Oregon, recently abolished tenure and went to a system of two-year contracts with a process for rehabilitation for under-performing teachers.
For the sake of the integrity of the public educational system, the California Teachers Association needs to support modest reforms of the tenure law. The legislature, in turn, before granting more money to school districts, needs to get association to the table and demand some changes. The likelihood of that occurring in this state, where the teachers association greases the lining of a majority of state legislators pockets, is little to none.
The reality is that California Teachers Association is in the business of supporting teachers. Its support of its own often does not translate into also supporting students, who would greatly benefit with some modifications to the tenure law.
Terry McAteer is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His views are his own and do not represent the views of The Union or its editorial board members. Contact him at email@example.com.
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