Karen Magee: Tenure Protects Good Teachers – And Good Teaching

Jul 21, 2014

Teacher tenure is one of the most misunderstood concepts in education. Misinformation and outright lies are spread by those who want to take away rights from teachers and destroy teacher unions.

In the coming weeks, you will undoubtedly hear that a group funded by billionaire hedge fund managers and investment bankers is launching a legal assault on due process, which protects teachers, all public servants and many in the private sector.

That’s why it’s important you hear the truth about tenure.

Tenure is a necessary safeguard that allows all the good teachers in New York to speak freely as professionals on behalf of their students.

History shows tenure’s basic protections are necessary. Teachers, administrators and other school staff must be free to speak out on important issues – like the effects of poverty and over-testing on student learning -- without fear of reprisal.

Many times, as a special education teacher in Harrison, I spoke up as a professional for what was best for my students. I advocated for the additional services my students needed because I could not be arbitrarily dismissed for doing so.

Picture what would happen if teachers – perhaps your child’s teacher -- could be fired at will or face career jeopardy for politically motivated reasons.

Instead, teachers are able to join parents in denouncing excessive standardized testing.

They stand up and oppose budget cuts that hurt students.

And, in communities where rising property taxes trigger loud opposition, they don’t have to worry that their school board will simply lay off the most expensive teachers – even if they happen to be the best and most experienced – to save money.

In New York, teachers earn tenure after a three-year probationary period. During this time, thousands of educators, facing the real-life accountability of teaching 30 students day after day, realize they don’t have what it takes. They recognize on their own they are not cut out for the rigor of the classroom, or are counseled out by administrators and colleagues.

Once a school board grants tenure, it only confers the right to a fair hearing before an impartial third-party if a district seeks to discipline or fire a teacher.

This due process of law is the linchpin of our judicial system. The concept is grounded in the U.S. Constitution. Due process also shields good police officers, firefighters and other public servants at the local, county and state levels from nepotism, favoritism, patronage and other forms of arbitrary dismissal. So, it’s not just teachers who are protected against unjust firing.

New York’s teacher tenure law has been streamlined in recent years to answer those who said due process hearings take too long and cost too much.

In 2012, the law was amended to require all disciplinary hearings to be completed within a reasonable five months. Most are settled before it gets that far. The improved tenure process means, in those rare cases in which the public trust is violated, guilty teachers are being fired without delay. And, when school districts misuse the law or bring baseless charges, innocent teachers are being returned to the classroom more swiftly.

No teacher – and no union – supports harboring those who can’t teach effectively. And, every teacher I’ve ever met wants swift and severe justice for those who hurt kids or who tarnish the profession.

Often, the facts are in question. When that happens, New York must have a system grounded in the basic fairness and impartiality that due process provides – one that shields the 99.9 percent of good teachers from arbitrary dismissal while also weeding out the very few bad ones who don’t belong in our classrooms.

Karen Magee is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

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