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Teacher tenure is a part of the educational fabric of every state in the United States. It is a form of job security that prevents teachers from being terminated without “just cause.” Despite having noble beginnings, teacher tenure has come under increasing scrutiny from educational reformists and politicians. The main argument against statutory job security for teachers is that it allows ineffective teachers to remain in the classroom while student performance is suffering.

Before tenure, teachers could be dismissed for any reason at all, including reasons unrelated to job performance. Through bargaining and protests by teachers’ unions, states began passing laws to provide teacher job security. In 1886, Massachusetts became the first state to pass legislation related to teacher tenure. In 1909, the state of New Jersey enacted the first all-encompassing elementary and secondary teacher tenure law.

Now, 104 years later, New Jersey is again in the headlines for its teacher tenure law. This time, the legislation is seeking to make it a little more difficult for teachers to earn tenure. In August 2012, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed legislation that reformed the 1909 law in order to tie teacher tenure to student performance. The bill requires that teachers complete yearly evaluations where student performance places a predominant role. A teacher who receives two consecutive negative evaluations is at risk of losing tenure. Additionally, teachers must teach four years, instead of just three, to be eligible for tenure.

Georgia has also been faced with teacher tenure reform laws. Its victory, however, was short lived. In 2000, Democratic Governor Roy Barnes successfully ushered through the legislature a law that abolished tenure for new teachers. As expected, Barnes met great criticism from the teachers’ unions and they refused to support him in his re-election bid in 2002. Barnes was defeated by Republican Governor Sonny Perdue, who became the first Republican governor in the state of Georgia since Reconstruction.

Other states have recently passed tenure reform laws. Idaho eliminated tenure for newly hired teachers. Florida ties contract renewals to student performance.

Below are just some reasons for and against teacher tenure.
Reasons for Teacher Tenure
– Tenure prevents districts from terminating experienced and higher paid teachers in order to hire less experienced and lower paid teachers.
– Tenure protects teachers from being terminated for arbitrary reasons.
– Tenure does not guarantee absolute job security. Procedures are in place for the removal of ineffective teachers.

Reasons against Teacher Tenure
– Tenure is granted after a short probationary period. Some school districts grant tenure after teachers complete their third year of teaching.
– Tenure makes it extremely difficult and expensive to remove ineffective teachers. Teachers who are granted tenure must be afforded due process rights before being fired. This essentially means a protracted, expensive legal battle between the school system and teacher.
– One of the primary reasons for granting tenure, especially for college professors, was to ensure academic freedom. With the importance of standardized testing and teaching the state standards, the need for elementary and secondary teachers to have academic freedom has largely been eliminated. Therefore, tenure is no longer needed.

As the spotlight will continue to be on improving public education in America, teacher tenure will continue to come under heightened scrutiny. There must be a balance between protecting teachers from arbitrary dismissals and improving student achievement.

Do you believe the teacher tenure system should be reformed?

Yoshana B. Jones, Esq. is an educator and Professional Learning Facilitator with Fulton County Schools....

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