The Effort to End Teacher Tenure

By Scott Mooneyham | Mar 26, 2013

RALEIGH -- State Senate leader Phil Berger may be making no friends among school teachers.

For a second straight year, the Rockingham County Republican is proposing that tenure for North Carolina public school teachers be eliminated.

Berger would replace tenure, which now kicks in after three years of teaching, with contracts. Local school boards could offer teachers employment contracts for up to four years.

So, essentially, for experienced teachers, lifetime career protection would be replaced by a four-year career protection.

Berger's proposal is again being attacked by opponents as anti-teacher and anti-public school.

One of the unfortunate things about the current Republican leadership in the North Carolina General Assembly is that they have opened up themselves to the criticism.

Legislation weakening the state's primary teacher organizing group, the N.C. Association of Educators, started the bad press. Rhetoric about "broken public schools" -- referring to schools that produce graduates accepted into Ivy League universities and now graduate 80 percent of students -- has not helped.

But Berger's reform ideas have been focused on making public schools better and more accountable, even as other legislators have pursued school choice legislation doing an end-run around the public schools.

Critics can call tenure reform "anti-teacher," but that ignores a key problem that many  school administrators will acknowledge: It takes a lot of time and money to get rid of bad teachers once they enjoy tenure.

A few years ago, the Associated Press reported that it sometimes costs $250,000 in legal and other expenses to fire a teacher in New York City, under a process that takes six to 18 months.

Teacher tenure laws vary by state, so the same time and expense may not be required here. Still, the North Carolina tenure law makes clear that the process can be long, with requirements for notifications, meetings, hearings and other legal due process obligations.

The requirements come into play because tenure, under legal theory, makes the job the same as possessing property. To deprive the person of the job requires the same legal due process.

Berger and others who favor reform of teacher tenure laws, here and elsewhere, know that these legal hoops deter school superintendents from getting rid of bad teachers.

That same AP story noted that 47 tenured teachers in New Jersey were fired during a 10-year period, out of 100,000 employed.

Few professions see those kinds of job security numbers.

The flip side of tenure laws, and a key reason that they were put in place, is that schools can be very political places. Without some job protections, teachers' jobs can be targeted for reasons that have nothing to do with their abilities in the classroom.

If Berger is to be successful with tenure reform this time around, he needs to articulate why his proposal won't allow superintendents and principals to turn their schools into job fiefdoms.

A little more talk about the good things that teachers and public schools are doing wouldn't hurt his cause either.