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Divorcing teacher tenure

It's time for this marriage to end



It's a common complaint among married couples: Once they got hitched, their spouse stopped trying. Their husband stopped sending flowers, their wife stopped wearing sexy clothes. They were locked into the relationship, so why put forth the effort?

The concept of teacher tenure is similar to a marriage. Teachers in North Carolina teach in a school district for four years (consider this the courtship period), then, if that district wishes to continue the partnership, the teacher earns tenure. The district commits to the teacher, vowing not to part ways unless the teacher seriously screws up. Terminating the employment of a tenured teacher is like going through a divorce — it's a long, costly process involving court hearings and attorneys. An Illinois newspaper discovered school districts there could expect to pay $100,000 in legal fees to fire a tenured teacher. Because school districts are so strapped for cash, it stands to reason they'll only pursue the dismissal of a tenured teacher with the most egregious performance or morality problems.

So is it plausible to think some educators feel so secure, they stop bothering to keep things fresh and exciting?

I saw it first hand this year, with my son's teacher. She gave tedious, repetitive assignments that modern educators moved on from years ago in favor of more engaging materials. She taught history lessons that have been thoroughly debunked. She had no desire to update, to innovate, to put forth extra effort. Her administrators knew it but admitted their hands were tied.

Lawmakers in North Carolina say tenure protects bad and complacent teachers from dismissal and they'd like to abolish it. Last year, they voted to phase out tenure for teachers, but a Superior Court judge ruled last month that they couldn't take away what teachers have already earned (duh), so now they're trying a different approach.

They're offering pay raises of more than 10 percent to teachers who will voluntarily give up tenure. In a state where teacher pay ranks damn near bottom in the nation, the raise is sorely needed.

But lawmakers don't really want to abolish tenure out of concern for teacher performance. Getting rid of tenure is just one battle in the legislative war against public education in North Carolina. They're also proposing to get rid of crucial teacher's assistants and eliminate large percentages of transportation and text book budgets. They're planning to give taxpayer money to charter schools and private schools instead. They're following a conservative agenda of privatizing education that can be seen playing out all over the country right now, often with disastrous results. (See: Louisiana, Florida and New Jersey)

Public education needs as many voters on its side as it can get, but, sadly, it's evident many have lost faith in it, or else no legislator who wanted to keep their job would be pushing hard for "reform." The concept of tenure is a liability for public education in the court of public opinion. A 2012 poll by Civitas Institute found 50 percent of North Carolinians in favor of abolishing tenure, a figure that grew to 54 percent last year, according to a poll by Elon University. One reason is that the public can't relate to the need for it. There's not a plethora of other jobs in this right-to-work state in which the law mandates the kind of protections teachers have, based simply upon the length of their employment. Teacher advocates argue it's needed to protect career teachers from being fired for malicious or political reasons, or being replaced by colleagues demanding less money, but most other jobs have potential to end in such unfortunate ways. Non-teachers are accustomed to navigating those risky waters, oftentimes by making themselves invaluable.

Tenure is also a liability because, sometimes it really does protect bad teachers and force out good ones. Tenure doesn't mean that a bad teacher can't be fired, but it does mean they can only be fired for specific reasons and they're entitled to a state-funded caseworker, a hearing, an appeal and a period of improvement before they can be let go. It also means that when budgets are short, there's less priority to retain a newer teacher who hasn't been employed for four years, no matter how great they are. The policy is "last one in, first one out."

If you're going to give special protections to certain teachers, they should be awarded on quality of work, not on the quantity of years served, and they should be revocable if quality falls.

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