IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

States tangle with teacher tenure

As momentum for school reform grows and state budgets continue to shrink, the system of teacher tenure is under increasing scrutiny

When Angel Taveras, the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, recently fired every one of the city's nearly 2000 teachers, it caused a predictable uproar. Although Taveras insisted he will re-hire as many teachers as he can afford, hundreds protested the terminations.

“We have to balance the budget, we have to educate our kids,” Taveras said. “We're going to do both.”

As cash-strapped states struggle to balance their budgets, the issue of teacher tenure—a controversial teachers' union protection frequently perceived as a job guarantee — is under scrutiny amid a growing clamor to curtail it.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been especially outspoken on the issue, leading a handful of states that are seeking to eliminate teacher tenure completely.

“Teaching can no longer be the only profession where you have no rewards for excellence, and no consequences for failure,” Gov. Christie told crowds earlier this year. “Let New Jersey lead the way. The time to eliminate teacher tenure is now.”

Although new public school teachers get tenure after three to five years on the job, National Education Association President Dennis Von Roekel challenges the notion that tenure somehow makes teachers impossible to fire.

“What it means in the K-12 system is that you are entitled to a hearing and that's it,” he says.

In 1997,  Oregon was among the first to adopt renewable contracts based on teacher evaluations, but maintained the fair dismissal process. Contract teachers are up for renewal every two years. Since then, at least nine states have replaced tenure — and along with it, the perception of a permanent position.

Trisha Parks, a seventh-grade teacher at Cedar Park Middle School outside Portland with nearly 20 years experience, says the renewable contract system has worked for her.

“It keeps me accountable for my own learning,” Parks says. “It keeps me accountable for staying in top shape on the job. Doing the job, delivering the job. And then it keeps the principals accountable for measuring me.”

But at New York City’s P.S. 65, where teachers still get tenure, principal Daysi Garcia says the current job review process just takes too long.

“It took 40 days of testimony, 5,000 pages of testimony, and cost the city $300,000 to $400,000 in legal fees,” Garcia says. “That's excessive.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the nation's second largest teachers' union, says too little oversight and not enough attention to teacher development — not tenure itself — are to blame for underperforming teachers. She has proposed a new model that would give those teachers three months to defend their job.

“Frankly, the process of evaluation should start from day one,” Weingarten says. “Ultimately we all need a development and evaluation system.”