The horror stories of incompetent but irreplaceable teachers circulate in communities everywhere. The French teacher who can say little more than bonjour. The chemistry teacher who hasn't conducted an experiment in years.
Even when a teacher is clearly not doing the job, tenure laws in most states make it costly and time-consuming to fire experienced educators.
At a recent education summit, President Clinton cited the case of a high school math teacher in Illinois "who couldn't do basic algebra and let the students sleep in class." It cost the district $700,000 to fire that teacher.
Despite the obstacles, a growing number of states are moving to curb what has been one of the hallmarks of American education. The move to weaken teacher-tenure laws is prompted by calls for better schools and a public desire to trim the fat out of school budgets.
Wisconsin repealed tenure for new teachers last year, and South Dakota replaced its tenure provision with a law allowing districts to fire teachers for "just cause."
Pennsylvania and South Dakota both passed laws extending the number of years a teacher must work before being granted tenure, and North Carolina has a bill pending to phase out tenure protections.
"As dissatisfaction with our education system grows, a lot of people point the finger and say it's because so many teachers have tenure," says Russell Moore, principal of Shaker Junior High School in Latham, N.Y. "People are looking for somebody or something to blame, and tenure seems to be it."
"We've seen a backlash over the last several years," agrees Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States in Denver.
Job for life?
But the trend to curb tenure is running into tough opposition from teachers unions. The current backlash is based on a misunderstanding of what teacher tenure actually means, says John Dunlop, director of collective bargaining for the National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest teachers union.
In most states, teachers with three years of experience are granted tenure status. "In the popular mind, tenure means that you have a job for life," Mr. Dunlop says. "In fact, tenure is a fair treatment process. All it means is that if you dismiss somebody, you have to do it for cause, and there are certain procedural requirements."
The first tenure laws were passed 75 years ago to protect teachers from arbitrary dismissal. "The teacher's job is fraught with a degree of political peril because of the number of clientele they are dealing with and the kinds of social issues that are present in the classroom constantly," Dunlop says.
Many educators argue that tenure allows veteran teachers to stand up against trendy educational philosophies. "If I didn't have tenure, I would have been fired a long time ago," says Patty Abarca, an outspoken California teacher.
There's no question that good teachers deserve some protection from arbitrary dismissal, says Myron Lieberman, chairman of the Education Policy Institute in Washington. "But in many states, tenure laws have gone way beyond all rhyme or reason in the protections they give to teachers," he says.
In some cases, the hearings and appeals provided for under tenure laws drag on for years and become a costly burden for school districts. These kinds of stories have discouraged some officials from taking on the battle of firing an incompetent teacher, says Dr. Moore, the New York principal. "You need due process, no question," he says. "But it is so expensive to get rid of incompetent teachers that districts don't want to get into it."
As a result, some states are working to streamline the dismissal process or abolish tenure altogether. But strong opposition from teachers unions has caused many tough proposals from governors to amount to little more than tinkering or, in some cases, has stalled the bills altogether.
After California Gov. Pete Wilson proposed replacing tenure with renewable five-year credentials this year, three different tenure bills were killed by the state Assembly. Minnesota's legislature also avoided the issue, despite Gov. Arne Carlson's call to "loosen teacher tenure" in his January State of the State Address. Proposals for change have also fallen flat in Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia.
Many policymakers are looking to replace automatically continuing contracts with five-year "renewable licenses" for teachers. From a principal's perspective, this makes sense, Moore says.
"What I've seen over the years is that people lose the motivation to stay vital because they have this lifetime license and there's not enough of an incentive to make them change," he says. "A renewable license where there are set things that need to be accomplished to renew tenure would help people adapt to changing classroom needs."
But the NEA is adamantly opposed to renewable licenses. "The essence of tenure and continuing contract now is that the employer has to do something affirmatively to get rid of you," Dunlop says. "The presumption under renewable contracts is that they would have to do something affirmatively to retain you, which means that you could be dismissed virtually without a cause."
Union opposition to renewable licenses is so strong that the New York school board association can't even find a Senate sponsor for its bill replacing tenure with renewable contracts. The group's executive director, Louis Grumet, blames the New York State United Teachers, which spent more than $3 million on lobbying and campaign contributions in 1994.
"There's no question that the main obstacles to reform are the teachers unions," Mr. Lieberman says. But he considers it a "strategic error" to attempt to change tenure laws now.
"When you attack teacher tenure, you simply strengthen the unions' ability to appeal to teachers," he argues. "They use it as an opportunity to say: 'See what would happen if it weren't for us.'"
The conversation about teacher tenure has been going on for 20 or 30 years, Lieberman says. "Governors, school board members, and others get up and cry over tenure. But it's not going to go anywhere until we first weaken the power of the teacher unions."