The Case Against Tenure 

How job protection for K-12 educators penalizes students.

The California Teachers Association has proven once again that it's one of the state's most powerful political forces. Last month the union faced three proposals that sought to curb the influence of teachers. One would have tightened Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's control over education funding, one would have curtailed the use of union dues to influence state politics, and one would have weakened teacher tenure. But when the election was over, all three had been trounced, and the governor's popularity had reached an all-time low.

As part of a coalition that beat back the governor's reform agenda, the teachers' union pulled out its big guns. It mobilized its huge membership like never before, and tapped into the millions of dollars it collects in dues each year from 300,000 teachers. Top union officials were so emboldened by their victory that they demanded an apology from Schwarzenegger. The governor hasn't delivered one, but the union's shock-and-awe campaign clearly left him weakened.

But even against the backdrop of the union's great victory, the election revealed substantial voter discontent with public-employee unions and teachers in particular. Proposition 74, the governor's tenure-reform initiative, garnered almost 45 percent of the vote and came in second among his proposals behind the other one aimed primarily at teachers -- the attack on union dues.

Schwarzenegger has since proclaimed that the thrashing he received at the ballot box was a repudiation of his special election and not his ideas. He said Californians simply want him to work harder with the Legislature to fix the state's problems. But the Republican governor is no longer talking about reforming union dues. He is, however, still committed to tenure reform, according to spokesman Rob Stutzman.

If Schwarzenegger is serious, he faces a monumental uphill battle. Democrats are hardly inclined to pick a fight with a union they've long relied upon for endorsements and campaign cash. And the governor himself is so wounded that he just selected a high-profile Democrat, Susan Kennedy, as his new chief of staff, which was widely seen as an attempt to resurrect his centrist image and distance himself from the union's portrayal of him as a radical. So at least for the moment, tenure reform looks all but dead.

That's too bad, because the governor's plan to reform California's archaic and burdensome tenure rules was far from being too radical. It wasn't radical enough.

Proposition 74 deserved to be defeated, but not for the reasons advanced by the teachers' union. It merely nibbled at the edges of reform. It sought to increase from two years to five the time it takes for a teacher to obtain tenure. While that would have given principals more time to evaluate new teachers, it did nothing about the burned-out ones who already have tenure. Haven't all of us had to endure at least one awful teacher in our lives?

A genuine tenure-reform initiative would have addressed such seemingly off-limits issues. But California teachers have achieved an almost untouchable status over the years. In the world of the California Teachers Association, public-school teachers are saints in the classroom. What politician -- or journalist, for that matter -- wants to be portrayed as being anti-teacher? From there, it's just a short walk to being labeled anti-child and anti-education.

As with all successful rhetoric, at least part of this is true. Who among us is willing to go into the roughest neighborhoods of Richmond, Oakland, or Concord every day to help needy kids for a salary of $40,000 a year? Untold numbers of teachers are doing their best to educate California's schoolchildren. But it's also true that California students consistently rank among the poorest performers nationwide. And some of our teachers aren't quite so virtuous. Yet even if they've done something truly heinous, it's next to impossible to get rid of them. That's bad news for kids.


Teacher tenure evolved in the first half of the 20th century as a way for university professors to protect their academic freedom. Tenure helped ensure that professors could conduct research or teach from controversial texts without fear of being fired. Lawmakers extended similar rights to elementary, junior, and high-school teachers in the 1930s, reasoning that they also deserved protection, especially from reactionary school boards.

The California Teachers Association says tenure's longevity is proof of its importance in public education. But in truth, it's a remnant of a bygone era. Rightly or wrongly, the paradigm of measurement and testing now reigns supreme in education. Curricula for reading, math, and language arts are highly structured and uniform. Teachers have already surrendered their academic freedom to state and federal education officials.

Nonetheless, more than 300,000 K-12 teachers in California not only have tenure, but obtained it far more easily than they would have if they were college professors. A study at Stanford University in the 1980s showed that 36 percent of college professors survived the rigorous five-to-seven-year tenure track. By contrast, most K-12 teachers have little trouble enduring California's two-year probation period.

The truth is, tenure for public-school teachers is an over-the-top perk. There is no good reason to give them greater job protections than virtually any other employees in the public or private sectors. It not only keeps school districts from holding workers to the same standards expected of everyone else, but it's much too costly for an educational system so chronically short on funds.

Legal experts say school districts must spend vast sums of money just to attempt to fire a teacher. As a result, the vast majority of districts never do it.

And there's a dirty little secret about California's K-12 tenure rules: School districts don't even have the authority to fire teachers.

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