New battle in the wars over tenure

The California governor has set a referendum on teacher dismissals.

By scheduling a special election for Nov. 8, California's Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is challenging one of teachers' most cherished rights: tenure.

To those who toil in the classroom, tenure has always meant job security and greater professional freedom. To critics, it can encourage a dangerous complacency and make firing ineffectual teachers prohibitively time-consuming and expensive. Now, a test of this long-cherished but controversial idea will be played out in the nation's most populous state, and it may well influence education policy nationwide. Among three governor-driven initiatives that will be hotly contested at the ballot box this fall is a plan to increase from two years of teaching to five the time it takes K-12 educators to earn the right to "due process" before they can be dismissed.

Supporters of the proposal contend that toughening the probationary period puts children first, instead of protecting unions that have proved a mighty deterrent to school reform. Opponents, including the California Teachers Association (CTA), say the measure is punitive, that it only hurts young teachers and stymies would-be iconoclastic educators who might now be more worried about job security than implementing change.

It is a battle being watched closely across the nation, as educators, policymakers, and politicians experiment with corporate models for US classrooms. From tenure to merit pay for teachers, the question of accountability is being debated in state legislatures, governors' offices, and on the airwaves. And many say the most recent battle in California could ripple out to other states and challenge the status quo.

"Whenever you have a governor taking a stand on an issue like this, antithetical to the union approach, I think it's going to set a precedent," says Gaynor McCown, executive director of The Teaching Commission, a New York-based group that has supported Governor Schwarzenegger's measures. "California is a union state," she says, "If it can happen in California, it will provide a powerful statement about where this issue could go."

Every state has some process for teacher review, historically intended to protect educators from political whims or patronage. Not all states opt to use the controversial word "tenure," which is often misunderstood as a guarantee of teaching jobs for life. Some states have been experimenting with term contracts. And those states that have changed tenure rules have recently moved toward toughening them, says Eric Hirsch, vice president for policy and partnerships at the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality.

For Lynn Pigott, California's possible move in that direction is the right one. The former middle school principal dealt with two ineffectual teachers assigned to her school after parents got them transferred out of the local elementary school. She says that tenure laws made removing them prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, even at a time when staff reductions were needed. "I had to let teachers [with less seniority] go who were well-liked, effective, educated," says Ms. Pigott. "It's not the American way."

While the battle is generally painted as political - with Democrats supporting teachers and their unions and Republicans supporting a more corporate structure in the schools, lines are not so neatly drawn. Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, for example, came out against teacher tenure in the late 1990s. Experts say the more important divide is not partisan, but rather between teachers seeking job protection and districts in pursuit of flexibility.

This month the CTA approved a $60 fee increase per teacher to raise $50 million to fight the governor's initiatives. CTA president Barbara Kerr says other states are watching both the tenure debate and the more hotly contested issue of school financing. That means a rare flurry of out-of-state contributions, though she says she has no official tally at this point. "People across the country realize that what happens in California affects them; it is spreading across the country, things that need to be stopped," she says.

Not everyone is opening their pocketbooks happily, though. John Kenney, a high school physics teacher in San Andreas who backs the governor's initiatives, signed a letter to the CTA in opposition to fee hikes. He says he believes many more teachers would come forward in opposition, but are cowed by the dominant culture in schools.

"The CTA is such a powerful union in the state," says Mr. Kenney. "Teachers are brainwashed to think that without tenure, they'd be doomed. That's not true."

Yet many say the debate - while important - misses a larger point. They say the effectiveness of probation periods ending at two years instead of five has not been sufficiently studied, and is a small piece of the accountability equation.

For Mr. Hirsch, talk of tenure or merit pay is premature until clear measures are in place for teacher evaluation. Some states have made strides toward such procedures, but he says most have a long way to go. "In most states a principal is looking at a classroom one or two times [a year] for twenty minutes - and making pretty high-stakes decisions."

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