WASHINGTON — America's public school teachers are seeing their generations-old tenure protections weakened as states seek flexibility to fire teachers who aren't performing. A few states have essentially nullified tenure protections altogether, according to an analysis being released Wednesday by the National Council on Teacher Quality.
The changes are occurring as states replace virtually automatic "satisfactory" teacher evaluations with those linked to teacher performance and base teacher layoffs on performance instead of seniority. Politically powerful teachers' unions are fighting back, arguing the changes lower morale, deny teachers due process, and unfairly target older teachers.
The debate is so intense that in Idaho, for example, state superintendent Tom Luna's truck was spray painted and its tires slashed. An opponent appeared at his mother's house and he was interrupted during a live TV interview by an agitated man. Why? The Idaho legislature last year ended "continuing contracts" — essentially equivalent to tenure — for new teachers and said performance, not seniority, would determine layoffs. Other changes include up to $8,000 in annual bonuses given to teachers for good performance, and parent input on evaluations. Opponents gathered enough signatures to put a referendum that would overturn the changes on the November ballot.
Tenure protections were created in the early 20th century to protect teachers from arbitrary or discriminatory firings based on factors such as gender, nationality or political beliefs by spelling out rules under which they could be dismissed after a probationary period.
Critics say teachers too often get tenure by just showing up for work — typically for three years, but sometimes less, and that once they earned it, bad teachers are almost impossible or too expensive to fire.