Tenure for Teachers: Enough is Enough

Every year untold thousands of school kids are harmed by teachers who shouldn’t be allowed in a classroom. Parents must be given an opportunity to send their children elsewhere.

A teacher arrives at work high on drugs…daily.

A teacher regularly flies into rages, terrifying kids and coworkers.

A teacher talks in explicit terms about sex to the students.

A teacher makes constant sexual advances to other teachers.

A teacher doesn’t teach her students anything.

These are a few of the teachers that new Perth Amboy schools superintendent Janine Caffrey has to deal with on a daily basis. She is quick to point out that most teachers are committed and talented, but there are a few….

The evil here is tenure or permanence, which in New Jersey bestows a position for life on teachers after just three years on the job. (It’s even worse in other states – in California, for example, a teacher can get into the untouchables club after only two years.) Tenure for teachers would be nothing more than a bad joke if it didn’t destroy the education experience for tens of thousands of children who are subjected to incompetent/cruel/perverted people on a daily basis.

The cases that Caffrey is dealing with are not all that uncommon. In my 28 year teaching career, I saw all the above and then some – like a teacher at my middle school who on a warm day at lunch decided to go topless on the athletic field. Admittedly guilty, the consequence of her action was to be transferred to a nearby elementary school. Another teacher regularly went to his car between his P.E. classes and got plastered. No consequence for him.

The proponents of tenure are typically bad teachers and their protectors — the teachers unions. They claim that tenure is nothing more than due process, and incompetent administrators are the ones to blame if a bad teacher is allowed to stay on the job.

Wrong. As Caffrey says,

“Proponents of tenure will tell you that any school or district can remove a teacher by the due-process system that the tenure law affords. That may be the intent of our tenure law, but it certainly doesn’t work that way.”

The truth is that the system is rigged, plain and simple. A chart supplied by the Education Action Group shows the Byzantine two-to-five-year roadmap that must be followed to get rid of an incompetent teacher. What the chart doesn’t tell you is the procedure’s astronomical cost to the taxpayer. In Los Angeles recently, the school district tried to get rid of seven stinkers — after five years and a cost of $3.5 million, they managed to get rid of four, while two accepted buyouts and one reportedly was reinstated.

Then there is the case of Gabrielle Leko, a teacher in the La Caňada school district in California who, according to many reports, regularly hurls insults at her students dating back to at least 1997. Calling her students such terms of endearment as Jew Boy earned her a brief stint in a sensitivity class. And while the school board and superintendent are figuring out what to do with her, Leko, unchastened, goes to work every day and does what she has always done. And whatever is decided – the next event is a school board meeting on December 21 – Ms. Leko’s fate will be kept under wraps. So even if she does lose her job in La Caňada, she will probably be free to continue foisting her insults on unwitting students in another school district, should she decide to stay in the field.

While tenure laws have been in effect just about everywhere in the country for far too long, there is some good news. There are states – Illinois, Indiana and Florida, to name a few — that have succeeded in moderating or eliminating this abomination. This is all well and good, but until tenure is completely eradicated, children will be continue to be damaged (and in some cases, abused) by teachers who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near them.

Also, Hoover Institution scholar Eric Hanushek claims that if we just got rid of the bottom performing 5 to 7 percent of teachers – a common practice in the private sector — our education system could rival that of Finland’s world class system.

Ultimately, the most realistic way for parents to successfully protect their children is to give them an option to remove their kids from harm’s way via a voucher. Parents should be allowed to take the money that as taxpayers they are paying to educate their child in a public school and apply it to enroll their children elsewhere – in a traditional public, charter or private school. Any school of their choosing.

And to the whiners amongst us who say, “But that could drain money away from public schools,” I say YES, it will! But the good news is that wherever students have been given a choice where to go to school, public schools have actually improved, even with less money. Yes, competition even works in the wacky world of public education.

One final note – if tenure is a disease that we absolutely must eradicate, perhaps political correctness is a close second. You may have read the story about a 9 year old boy in North Carolina who got suspended from school by the principal for two days because he told his teacher she was cute. Yes, he was accused of “sexually harassing” her. A nine year old! Fortunately, his mother decided to fight back – the story went viral, became national news and the boy was reinstated by district officials with an apology. Jerry Bostic, the principal who ordered the suspension, didn’t get off so easy. Downgraded to Assistant Principal, he refused the demotion and retired instead. He thought that after 43 years of service to his school district he deserved better. And maybe he did, but his judgment in this situation was appalling.

In any event, it’s time to give parents a choice where to send their children to school. The traditional forced-zip-code method hasn’t worked well for children, their families and taxpayers for decades.

All need to mark their calendars for January 22, 2012 – the start of National School Choice Week – which will provide a concentrated focus on the need for effective education options for every child. To learn more and get involved, please visit the NSCW website.

(Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.)