Those who seek to improve public schools in America rarely discuss the role that teacher tenure plays in the school improvement process. Does lifetime employment for educators provide stability and create the conditions for positive change—or does it stymie reform by keeping schools from cleaning out deadwood that has no place in the classroom? Can any organization, business, or bureaucracy truly thrive when it has little or no control over its human resources because of civil service job guarantees that park employees in their chairs whether or not they are still—or perhaps were ever—doing their jobs well?
Most who look at education reform in traditional public schools never consider the possibility of eliminating tenure, although charter schools often have much more hiring and firing flexibility, because discussing the elimination of teacher tenure is considered the third rail of electoral politics—you’re dead if you touch it. Imagine a deep blue state such as California or New York contemplating such a move; given that the NEA and AFT are Democratic stalwarts, it is rather like the possibility of dinosaurs in red capes landing in flying saucers—rather remote at best. However, even Republican-dominated states shy away from the idea because the strife that would result from the inevitable teacher strikes and walkouts is considered too high a price to pay for what is likely a losing battle; equating any move against tenure as an attack on unions, state and federal courts would probably take a dim view of any rollback of the labor protections codified in established law.
Nonetheless, I sometimes catch myself wondering what would happen if K-12 schools could hire and fire at will—with perhaps an enhanced ability to bring in skilled individuals from business, industry, and elsewhere to teach? Would this be a net gain or loss for the students and families who rely upon traditional public schools? Could this earthshaking change in personnel policy be the key that unlocks the potential for school improvement after so many decades of failed efforts by finally turning teaching into a career dependent on classroom performance instead of a contractual mandate unconnected to student achievement?
However, when I open my eyes, harsh and immutable reality intrudes, and I realize my questions hardly matter because this will never, ever happen.
First off, we must acknowledge that any effort to eliminate teacher tenure in traditional public schools would be a apocalyptic fifty front trench war that would test the mettle of state legislatures far beyond the already pitched battles about taxing and spending. Fearing that they would end up in the crosshairs of a flood of labor union and PAC dollars seeking to unseat them, elected officials are unlikely to embrace an effort guaranteed to bring endless headaches and little prospect of success because it will take just one state or federal judge to nullify any rollback or elimination of teacher tenure. Therefore, legislators would probably not even bother exhausting their political capital on a dead end quest for any new law.
Of course, were Republicans to end up in 2020 with the White House and unassailable majorities in both the House of Representatives and Senate—Democrats would never consider such an idea because they rely so heavily on teacher union money and support—perhaps a federal law could be passed that would prohibit states from granting tenure in K-12 in order to finally provide the workforce flexibility that would allow local school districts to clear their classrooms of those who deem actual teaching to be an enormous annoyance.
This would also not work—at all.
Given that a lot of those local districts would, as a matter of course, likely be firing mid-career employees in a predominantly female workplace (77% percent of K-12 teachers are female and average 42 years of age), a tsunami of age and gender discrimination lawsuits would overwhelm the courts and run the risk of, quite literally, bankrupting entire school systems due to crushing legal costs. Moreover, given the well-documented evaluation deficiencies, which are quite deliberately baked into all union contracts, that magically rate every teacher as proficient regardless of actual job performance, school principals trying to explain under oath why they now wish to dismiss teachers routinely rated as productive would be left squirming helplessly in the witness chair.
We also need to pity the plight of school administrators were any such effort to eliminate or drastically curtail teacher tenure actually be made. A significant component of their performance reviews is their ability to foster “positive relationships” with their faculty; therefore, no one is going to want to endanger their own administrative jobs by openly declaring that one teacher is better than another—much easier to insist everybody is doing a wonderful job and go happily along. The crushing impact that even one bad teacher can have on a student’s educational future is enormous, but the needs of students are tangential to the entrenched bureaucratic processes that are always there to ensure Ms. Snide and Mr. Grumpus get to keep their jobs—no matter what.
Even if one were to grant the vague possibility that teacher tenure might be eliminated by federal law, the sheer hell of implementation still lies ahead. If the battles over undocumented immigration over the past several years have taught us anything, we have learned that vast numbers of U.S. states are now willing to “go Confederate” by simply ignoring Federal laws they don’t like—or passing their own laws that declaw Federal statutes. We cannot count on state-level compliance when so many are content to go rogue for reasons of their own.
The political veto power of the roughly 3.2 million public school teachers now in our classrooms, who can beat their opponents into submission with lawsuits or simply work to vote them out of office altogether, has saddled America with a system that is impervious to all but the most superficial of reforms. An unaccountable system that provides steady paychecks and benefits and is utterly divorced from any marketplace realities—but has tremendous sway with one of our two major political parties and can easily scare the other—will never surrender its power and prerogatives. Parents with children in public schools who do not have access to our relatively sparse supply of charter schools are screwed—so we should simply accept this as fact.
Oddly enough, this might all be a moot point because we are riding a growing wave of teacher shortages that are leaving school districts scrambling for warm bodies. Firing any carbon-based life form still willing to teach in a K-12 public school is just not a pressing consideration at the moment.
Having legislatively disabled school discipline, turning many who are foolish enough to stand in front of a classroom into powerless targets instead of productive teachers, it is little wonder so few are now interested in careers in education. Ironically, it might be the sheer misery that now often accompanies daily life as a K-12 public school teacher that finally ends all efforts to foster educator accountability—much less discard the current tenure system. If we fired all the lazy, cruel, incompetent, and uncaring teachers who daily destroy the futures of our young, would anyone with a lick of good sense want to take their places? A workplace where your best efforts are many times rewarded with misbehavior, foul language, and occasionally even violence is not one many are anxious to enter.
Therefore, if anyone is still expecting changes, improvements, or reforms that do not involve simply dumping yet another bucket of money on one of K-12’s many, many problems, don’t hold your breath.
As for teacher tenure, absent a revolution it is as secure as the sun in the sky—which is indescribably sad for the students who must rely upon the shaky public school system that America is stuck with today to prepare them for their futures.