To Give or Not to Give Tenure (to Teachers)…That is the Question?

by Amy Pimer

Anyone who has ever been through the public school system knows that the quality of teachers ranges from inspiring to abysmal. There are teachers who bring out the best in their students and always put in the extra mile, while there are others who get away with the most ridiculous things. A question often asked, by parents and students alike, is why the horrible teachers are still teaching. Many times the answer is tenure.

Teacher tenure “provides job security for teachers who have successfully completed a probationary period. The purpose is to protect outstanding teachers from being fired for non-educational issues including personal beliefs, personality conflicts with administrators or school board members, etc.”[1] Tenure creates a paradox for the approximate “2.3 million public school teachers in the U.S.” who have tenure because it yields “academic freedom plus job security,” but also “protects incompetent teachers from being fired.”[2] Tenure was applied to teaching positions towards the end of the nineteenth-century and was a response to teachers demanding “protection from parents and administrators who would try to dictate lesson plans or exclude controversial materials like Huck Finn from reading lists.”[3] This demand eventually lead to roughly 10,000 teachers coming together in 1887 for the first conference of the National Educator’s Association, with tenure as the main focus of the event.[4]

The purpose and support of teacher tenure is not without merit; however, it does not mean that the system is perfect. One of the major pitfalls of tenure is how difficult it makes it to fire teachers who are no longer good teachers.[5] For example, in “Connecticut [a] teacher received a mere 30-day suspension for helping students cheat on a standardized test . . . [and] a Florida teacher remained in the classroom for a year despite incidents in which she threw books at her students.”[6] In New York, a teacher with tenure is “entitled to due process rights under Section 3020a of the state Education Law.”[7] This law entitles teachers to a hearing before charges are brought, and suspension with pay until the hearing occurs.[8] With the pros and cons of “teacher tenure” in the balance, where does it currently stand?

Courts have begun the process of following some states that have already gotten rid of tenure.[9] Recently in California, a judged ruled, much to the dismay of teachers unions, “that teacher tenure laws deprived students of their right to an education under the State Constitution and violated their civil rights.”[10] While the decision of the court has the support of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, this case is likely far from over, with the teachers’ union planning to appeal.[11] Parties on both sides of the “v.” agree that there are a large amount of “grossly ineffective teachers,”[12] but is taking away tenure going to be the solution? The lawyers representing the teachers’ unions in these cases emphasize that tenure protects the good teachers and that taking away tenure is not going to fix the problems within the school system such as “social and economic inequalities.”[13]

California is not the only state looking to examine its tenure policy, as this issue was just heard in New York.[14] On Thursday, March 12, 2015, Justice Philip G. Minardo in Staten Island, NY, denied city and union officials’ motion to dismiss, allowing the suit challenging the constitutionality of teacher tenure to proceed.[15] The suit was filed last year and “contends that teacher tenure and discipline policies deprive children of their right to a ‘sound basic education.’”[16] The parents’ goal in this lawsuit is to obtain access to information regarding teaching quality and how that quality affects student success.[17] The response of the Federation of Teachers to this ruling is the same as that in California; they plan to appeal the decision.[18]

As the New York judicial system prepares to hear arguments on the issue regarding teacher tenure, there is no way to predict how it will turn out. However, if the court rules in a similar way to the court in California, it is possible that other states will follow suit and it will be an uphill battle for teachers unions to maintain tenure for their members.

[1] Derick Meador, What is Teacher Tenure?, about education, http://teaching.about.com/od/pd/a/Teacher-Tenure.htm (last visited Mar. 12, 2015) (noting that these laws vary by state, but are generally similar in the fact that they provide job security).

[2] M.J. Stephey, A Brief History of Tenure, TIME (Nov. 17, 2008), http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1859505,00.html.

[3] Id.

[4] See id.

[5] See id.

[6] Id.

[7] Tenure for New Teachers, United Federation of Teachers, http://www.uft.org/new-teachers/tenure (last visited Mar. 12, 2015).

[8] See N.Y. Educ. Law § 3020-a(2) (Consol. 2014) (noting that this list is not exhaustive, and more due process rights are included throughout statute).

[9] See Jennifer Medina, Judge Rejects Teacher Tenure for California, N.Y. Times, June 10, 2010, at A1, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/11/us/california-teacher-tenure-laws-ruled-unconstitutional.html.

[10] Id.

[11] See id.

[12] Id.

[13] See id.

[14] Elizabeth A. Harris, Staten Island Judge Allows Suit on Teacher to Proceed, N.Y. Times, Mar. 12, 2015, at A26, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/13/nyregion/si-judge-allows-suit-on-teacher-tenure-to-proceed.html?_r=0.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] See id.

[18] Id.; Medina, supra note 9.

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