By Alexander Schwab
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career as an action hero is only getting started.
Last week, the top politician from the Golden State scheduled a November special election, giving voters the opportunity to consider a number of proposed ballot initiatives, including an education reform that would require teachers to work for five years, rather than the customary two, before gaining access to the job security of tenure. In addition, the measure would authorize school boards to dismiss even tenured faculty who receive two consecutive unsatisfactory performance evaluations. The reform arrives decades late, but still in time to combat the tyranny of incompetence that governs California public schools.
Tenure guarantees teachers mediation and due process should administrators attempt to fire them. Because of this, dismissals typically require legal proceedings averaging two years in duration and $200,000 in cost. Figures increase if the teacher appeals the judgment, as teacher unions fight tooth and claw to protect their members. Over the ten-year period from 1990 to 1999, Los Angeles Unified School District—the second largest in the nation—dismissed only one teacher.
The tenure practice began in California in the 1920s, the era of the Scopes Monkey Trial and the fight over evolution. At the time, tenure was a natural means of offering much-needed job security in an uncertain academic climate. But now that free speech rights have been expanded to protect the right of teachers to discuss controversial topics in the classroom, the challenge is not how to shield school employees from state politics, but state politics from school employees.
Limiting the protections of teacher tenure would enforce proficiency among both newer, unseasoned teachers and veterans of the system. Sub-par teachers would face longer periods of vulnerability in their early years on the job, translating into more opportunity for local districts to discover and correct inadequacy in their educational workforces. Those teachers who have become ineffective—and, in a few sad cases, senile—with age could be removed before inflicting irreparable harm on their students.
Perhaps most tragic is the disproportionate harm inflicted upon the children of the least privileged. Parents active in their local schools will lobby for the removal of incompetent teachers from their children’s classrooms, but because tenure presents an insurmountable obstacle to dismissal, administrators move these teachers rather than fire them. Eventually, they gravitate to schools in low-income areas, oftentimes populated by immigrant families, where parents are less likely to be vocal about their dissatisfaction with teachers. Those most in need of a quality education become those least likely to receive it.
Ironically, minimizing tenure actually improves the quality of the teacher applicant pool. While critics argue that tenure is necessary to attract new teachers to the profession, talented young people are more likely to become educators if the system rewards merit. When all teachers, good and bad, are treated equally, the mediocre stand to gain the most, and those are precisely the individuals enticed by tenure promises. Quality teachers need not fear for their jobs, but they may be put off by what they see as a misallocation of resources to their unqualified peers.
Defenders of the current tenure system often cite job security as a means of focusing teachers’ attention on their students. Education suffers, they argue, when teachers are concerned about the future of their careers. Such logic ignores the incredible productivity of the private sector, which lacks such safeguards. Were there a link between performance and job security, private businesses would have been issuing tenure to their employees for years simply in order to remain competitive. Unsurprisingly, they do not.
As with all political issues, teacher tenure presents a tradeoff. Californians must determine whether the state’s school system exists to provide secure employment or to offer children a quality education. For those who favor the latter, reducing the excesses of teacher tenure is an imperative this November. As Governor Schwarzenegger posited in his State of the State address, “An educational system that rewards and protects a bad teacher at the expense of a child is wrong.”
Schwarzenegger is leading the fight for educational reform, but he cannot win this battle on his own—he needs California voters on his side.
Alexander Schwab is a Research Assistant for the Center for Individual Freedom.June 23, 2005