Teacher tenure has stirred controversy among teacher’s unions, state unions, school administrators, and government officials since the policy first appeared during the late 19th century. A couple of weeks ago, three states and the District of Columbia eliminated tenure, claiming that granting teachers permanent employment may be harmful to students. On June 10th, the Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled, “Teacher tenure laws deprive students of their constitutional right to an education.” This is especially significant given that California is our nation’s most populous state. This decree has potential ramifications for education systems across the country.
Nine students from the Los Angeles school district brought forward the lawsuit, claiming that tenured teachers limited their access to equal educational opportunity. In California, teachers are eligible for tenure after just 18 months of teaching, which administrators and policy makers argue is not enough time to observe a teacher’s potential and/or effectiveness. The plaintiffs in the case argued that ineffective teachers are disproportionately placed in schools that serve low-income and minority students. Citing the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Judge Rolf Treu stated that “all students are entitled to equal education” and that “the current situation discriminates against minority and low-income students.”
Though I disagree about Judge Treu’s use of this historic court case in arguing against teacher tenure, I do understand the frustrations of students, parents, and administrators regarding ineffective teachers being granted permanent employment. Tenure laws do make it more difficult to hire and fire, which is concerning in schools that already do not receive enough funding. Struggling schools are sometimes left with ineffective or under-trained teachers, coupled with students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. When the system becomes more rigid and teacher mobility becomes more difficult, the argument against teacher tenure is clear-cut: schools need effective teachers, and tenure has the potential to offer under-qualified teachers permanent positions, affecting students’ access to a quality education.
It may also be important to look at the tenure program from a monetary perspective. John Deasy, the Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent, testified during the trial stating that, “It can take over two years on average to fire an incompetent tenured teacher and sometimes as long as 10. The cost of doing so…can run anywhere from $250,000 to $450,000.” This opportunity cost is a significant expense to school districts that already have limited funding.
Though I agree that this is an unnecessary expense, I think that it is important to look at this case from the teachers’ perspectives. Teachers and state unions argue that overturning these laws would allow administrators to make unfair personnel decisions, including firing without legitimate cause. Many believe that the current tenure system preserves academic freedom, something that is slowly being taken away through the increased use of standardized educational tests and procedures. Tenure also helps attract talented teachers to a profession that does not pay as highly as others.
When this ruling is final, it will “prohibit the state from enforcing a law that gives teachers permanent employment after less than two years on the job.” Other states are impatiently watching this ruling to unfold, knowing that it will greatly influence tenure policies across the country.
Recently, the tenure debate was important enough to be featured on the front page of the New York Times website. But I do not think that enough educators, teachers, and professionals are talking about it. The fact that students brought forth the lawsuit proves that those within education policy are too scared to bring tenure into the spotlight. The debate calls for difficult questions and discussions about employment, teacher training, low-income versus high-income districts, and school funding. These seem to be the subjects that cause nightmares for policy makers.
Among all of this current, front-page debate, I still remain conflicted on this topic. I do sympathize with the argument against tenure, especially given what I know about ineffective teachers being disproportionately placed in under-performing schools. However, I also understand the attraction towards tenure in drawing talented people into the education field, providing job protection, and allowing academic freedom. Perhaps the reason why I am still so conflicted is because this issue rarely makes a newsworthy story. Rarely do students learn about tenure, not to mention those in the education field themselves. If this debate encompasses so many other important factors of education policy reform, shouldn’t it be at the forefront of discussion?