This week I’d like to address a particular aspect of the governor’s State of the State address — teacher tenure.
In that address the governor proposed teacher tenure laws be revised. To paraphrase, the governor would like to see teachers earn security through merit rather than seniority. There’s more, of course, and the details have yet to be worked out, but that’s the crux of it.
I have found that the overwhelming majority of the people I talk to think tenure is a system in which teachers, once they having gained it, can never ever lose their jobs, no matter how profoundly incompetent they may be.
That view couldn’t be further from the truth.
In a nutshell, Connecticut laws guarantee a tenured teacher one thing: due process. A teacher may be dismissed only for — and I take this directly from the law:
1. inefficiency or incompetence based on evaluations that comply with State Board of Education guidelines for evaluations;
2. insubordination against reasonable board of education rules;
3. moral misconduct;
4. disability proven by medical evidence;
5. elimination of the position to which he was appointed or loss of a position another teacher, as long as there is no other position for which the teacher is qualified and subject to the applicable provisions of a collective bargaining agreement or school board policy; or
6. other due and sufficient cause.
Given those guidelines, it is clear that a tenured teacher can indeed be dismissed for many more reasons then you might have guessed.
Is it easy? No. It’s not supposed to be.
Has there ever been an instance where a teacher in Newtown has actually lost his or her job for incompetence? YES. Having been the vice president of the Newtown Federation of Teachers for many years, I personally know of instances where this has happened.
I’ll admit. It wasn’t easy, and it did, in fact, cost the town some money. Maybe the process needs to be streamlined but until someone comes up with a fair, workable alternative, any effort to tinker with the system should be done extremely carefully.
One of the traditional reasons the tenure system was created was to protect teachers from dismissal for capricious or political reasons.
For example, suppose I had a wild-eyed, bleeding-heart liberal for a principal and I was a rock-solid Reagan conservative teacher. Maybe we’ve had discussions from time to time that led to rather heated disagreements. Tenure would, among other things, protect me from his or her abuse of power.
OK, so this is a very extreme and rather unlikely scenario in today’s culture but how about this one.
Let’s say tenure laws are changed enough so that now it’s possible to use them as a way to control the bottom line of a budget? What costs more? A 20-year veteran or a 2-year rookie? Can we guarantee Connecticut towns are above such a sinister move? Maybe, maybe not. I know people reading this right now who would do it in a heartbeat!
Should we tolerate incompetent teachers in the classroom? Absolutely not. Get rid of them or, better yet, improve them. If that doesn’t work, they’re gone!
The devil’s in the details. We need to know what the governor means by reform. For example is it what slash-and-burn Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey wants? Doubtful, but...
Not done correctly, this could go very badly and backfire on everyone.
I’m not expecting universal agreement here. I’m just asking that you resist the temptation to use the concept of tenure as a handy tool to bash unions and teachers (therein lies another column). It’s a complicated issue.
A little food for thought. Bon Appetit!