What is Teacher Tenure in the K-12 System?

Tenure of teachers in the K-12 system is different from tenure in universities.  In colleges and universities, tenure basically insures lifetime employment.  In the K-12 educational system, Tenure simply insures ‘due process” – a series of steps that schools/districts/cities/states require before a tenured teacher can be dismissed.

In Los Angeles, a judge allowed a lawsuit that would overturn teacher tenure laws and seniority rights to move forward. A committee in the North Carolina legislature is now studying a bill that would eliminate tenure for all teachers.

On Election Day, Idaho voters rejected a series of anti-teacher laws, including scrapping tenure, proposed by the state legislature. In South Dakota, voters shot down an effort to make teacher tenure a local option instead of automatic statewide.

Teacher tenure is complex, controversial, and political throughout the United States, and many state legislatures plan to examine the matter in their upcoming 2013 legislative sessions.

What is tenure, exactly? Legally put, tenure gives teachers a permanent contract after a set term of employment, ensuring that they cannot be fired without just cause. In order to fire a teacher, administrators have to conduct intense reviews of the teacher’s performance and navigate miles of bureaucratic tape.

Proponents cheer tenure because it protects jobs, academic freedom, and teachers’ rights. Unions often cite that without tenure, school districts could easily fire veteran teachers, who cost more, and hire first-year teachers who would work for less pay. It also protects teachers, advocates say, from dismissal because of political, social or religious beliefs.

Opponents say that it makes firing bad teachers virtually impossible. They argue that teachers are granted tenure before it’s proven that they can actually teach.

States vary on when teacher tenure occurs. Mississippi, for example, allows for tenure after only one year of teaching. The majority of states allow tenure after two or three years. Ohio doesn’t grant tenure until after seven years of teaching.

In most states, before tenure is granted a teacher can be dismissed without going through the process noted above.  I know of a teacher with tenure who was threatened with dismissal because he was teaching about the United Nations in a history class.  The removal of tenure laws would allow states to get rid of higher paid senior teachers to be replaced by younger, less-experienced, lower-paid educators.   If you were faced with critical surgery and were given a choice between a newly graduated surgeon, who was highly trained at a prestigious medical school or an experienced surgeon who had performed the surgery hundreds of times, who would you choose?  Obviously politicians do not want to give parents and students a similar choice.