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Opinion: Pros and cons of tenure

I was discussing tenure recently with several public school and college instructors, and, of course, all of them emphatically defended tenure as a mandatory protection of their rights and freedom of expression.

Many of you have no doubt heard of the term “tenure,” but perhaps you are unclear about its meaning and implications. Tenure is an indefinite academic appointment that can be terminated only for cause, immoral behavior or under unusual circumstances such as program discontinuation.

Tenure is valued by educators as a means of defending the principle of academic freedom, which allows these professionals to hold and examine a wide variety of views without fear of being fired. In many classrooms across the country, teachers are becoming increasingly concerned that their academic freedom is being challenged by extreme individuals and organizations who are trying to impose a conservative conformity on the educational community starting with the packing of school boards.

Teacher tenure has always been a controversial form of job protection that public school teachers in 46 states, including Pennsylvania, receive after anywhere from one to five years of teaching. Professional teaching associations estimate that more than 2 million teachers have tenure. Unlike other jobs where employees are employed “at will,” meaning that they can be discharged pretty much at the whim of the employer, teachers have been accorded this special protection because of widespread abuses going back more than a century.

Proponents of tenure maintain that it protects teachers from being fired for personal or political reasons and prevents the firing of experienced teachers to hire less expensive new teachers. Opponents argue that tenure makes removing poorly performing teachers so difficult and expensive that most schools end up keeping unsatisfactory teachers for reasons of expediency.

Critics say that tenure encourages complacency among educators who do not fear losing their jobs, especially as they close in on the twilight of their careers. Not so, say opponents who maintain that strong job discrimination laws protect these employees so tenure laws are superfluous.

Before the introduction of tenure in the late 19th century, teachers were fired for reasons having nothing to do with their job performance and competence. A new school board or administration might replace teachers with relatives or friends who needed a job. Boards of education in the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre-Hazleton areas were particularly notorious for this type of nepotism and patronage, which then many times resulted in kickbacks to the employer or employee’s patron, or both.

In 1909, New Jersey passed the first comprehensive K-12 tenure law in the United States with proponents arguing the law would attract more qualified teachers and largely eliminate political favoritism and nepotism.

In addition to protecting teachers from being fired for personal, political or other nonwork related reasons, tenure protects them from being fired for teaching controversial topics such as evolution and classic literature which in some schools has been banned. Examples are: “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “Catcher in the Rye” and “Huckleberry Finn.”

That said, some activist school boards and administrators are making it difficult for instructors to teach these materials because of internal policies that have been adopted by ultra conservative school boards.

Some of the other reasons why educators embrace tenure are: It promotes more thoughtful selection of teachers who could bring innovation to their district, helps prevent making teachers scapegoats for problems facing education, rewards years of positive evaluations by administrators, allows teachers to advocate for students and disagree with administrators.

One thing tenure does not do is guarantee a job for life - a common misconception. Each state’s tenure laws require carefully monitored and strict processes for removing a tenured teacher, but it is possible.

Some teachers and administrators are ambivalent about tenure. A recent poll of more than 4,000 Americans found that 49% oppose tenure while 33% support it. The rest had no opinion. Among teachers, 61% favor tenure while 31% are against it, primarily because it tends to protect teachers who are either incompetent or who are not pulling their weight.

Because of seniority factors tied to tenure, more experienced teachers can choose easier courses leaving the more difficult ones to the least-experienced educators, which is not a sound educational practice.

I was a full-time secondary school teacher for 2½ years, so I never acquired tenure. I also was an adjunct instructor for more than 20 years where I had no tenure protections, which was fine with me. I had a full-time job, so if for some reason I was fired or not rehired, it did not affect mine or my family’s livelihood.

Like many educators, I have mixed feelings about tenure. It’s really important in guaranteeing job protection from political interference or nepotism, but I really dislike it when under-performing teachers are just putting in their time because they know they have tenure and probably won’t be fired.

By Bruce Frassinelli?|?tneditor@tnonline.com