Love me tenure

Today, Coombs, Shaffer and Snell debate teacher tenure. Previously, they discussed the school board election and the merits of mayoral takeover via the charter-school movement. Future installments will focus on the Locke High School cock-up and possible education reform.

Stop fighting sovietization of schools By Walter P. Coombs and Ralph E. Shaffer
One of the "innovations" of charter schools gives principals and governing boards the power to fire teachers without the complicated procedures that come with "tenure." That innovation will take us back to the days when nepotism ruled.

Before tenure, a common problem was hiring of a relative, friend or crony of a board member to replace a good teacher. That was especially true after election of new members to a school board. Charters and nepotism go together.

Charter advocates would make it easier to fire a teacher considered a threat to their concept of education. In fact, they've already done it.

The recent dismissal of two teachers at Celerity Nascent charter in Los Angeles because they protested the deletion of a civil rights performance is a warning of things to come.

Tenure protects good teachers from the wrath of vocal elements in the community who would impose their ideology, religion, politics or other claptrap on the public schools.

The record of school boards and administrators in this state before tenure is an indication of what will happen under charters.

One of the earliest indications that we needed tenure occurred in Los Angeles city schools in the mid-1890s. Two school board members demanded a month's pay to guarantee a teacher's reappointment for the coming year.

San Francisco educator Kate Kennedy was dismissed by the local board primarily for her association with Henry George and the single tax movement.

The Red scare following World war I shows what can happen without tenure. The Los Angeles superintendent imposed a loyalty oath on the city's teachers with the intent to fire any who professed support for the I.W.W., a radical but legal labor union.

The state superintendent investigated radical literature in the state's public schools. His targets: The New Republic, The Nation and those teachers who referred to them. Pasadena's superintendent boasted that he would recommend dismissal of teachers with radical tendencies.

A Los Angeles board member, in the 1920s, condemned the "sovietization" of the schools. His concern was that proposed teachers' councils would gain for the instructors a voice in the administration of the city's public schools. (Gee, isn't that what those charter "innovators" claim they want to do?) He also condemned the role of teachers' organizations in pressing for school bonds, tax overrides and other pro-education activities that he considered improper for teachers to engage in.

When the present tenure law was adopted recalcitrant school boards simply decided to dismiss all teachers at the end of their probationary period rather than give them permanent status. That policy was recommended to local districts by the Los Angeles county superintendent.

On his death bed in 1928 Los Angeles educator Mark Keppel, a superintendent for nearly three decades, whispered in a failing voice, as his breath came in gasps: "Don't let them repeal the tenure law. The teachers and the children need it."

Wouldn't that have made a great movie scene for "The Gipper," who, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, tried to abolish tenure while governor in the 1970s?

Walter P. Coombs is professor emeritus of social sciences at Cal Poly Pomona, and Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona.

Give teachers more choices By Lisa Snell
Despite Ralph and Walter's horror stories, there is a significant reason to be skeptical of our current tenure system in Los Angeles Unified. It has created intolerable working conditions for teachers, who are less concerned about "lifetime security" than their day-to-day school experience.

Tenure and lock-step salary schedules constrain the professional options of teachers and can create a less cohesive working environment. When principals have little control over their staff, working conditions suffer. Teachers need competition and choice among different kinds of work environments just as much as students.

Again Locke High School is representative of more general trends. The current system has failed when principal Frank Wells declares, "I went to Locke thinking I could turn it around, but I ran into a brick wall... The more you fail, the more money they throw at you. We're filthy rich; I don't want any more of your money. Send me quality teachers."

Wells needs control over his staff to make real changes at Locke. In addition, the number of Locke teachers willing to convert to a Green Dot charter, despite a high level of uncertainty as to each teacher's job security, speaks to the poor working conditions under LAUSD's current tenure-based system.

In fact, last year the Los Angeles Times reported that more than 700 teachers and administrators left LAUSD to work in LA-based charter schools. These teachers were willing to bet on their own skills rather than fall back on a job guarantee.

Teachers have gained better working conditions and more professional jobs from the competition among charter schools. Charter schools offer all kinds of unique opportunities for teachers from Master teacher to science and special education professionals as well as traditional advancement in school administration.

One legitimate reason for Steve Barr's success is that he understands the difference between "lifetime job security" and tolerable working conditions. He explained it in his own words during a guest commentary at Education Sector's Eduwonk blog:

What saddens me is most of the successful schools in our movement practice beautifully what most teachers and their unions push for: Better work conditions with smaller schools and smaller class sizes, more say in what goes on in front of them, and streamline funding (sic) with less bureaucracy, which should transfer in high teacher pay. I know these basic tenets are part of our success. We pay better than LAUSD, despite the fact that we get 30% less money than LAUSD. If I had 30% more money I could start teachers at $55,000 a year! Some of our best innovations have come from teacher-led initiatives. Like our ninth grade reading intervention project, where forty percent of our kids test well below fourth grade reading level, ninety percent rally to grade level by the end of their freshman year. Do you know what happens to a fourteen year old who learns how to read for the first time? These teachers are creating an army of world-beaters! And our teachers gladly give up tenure for a more relevant just cause. They want to be accountable too! I know that our union partnership is one of the main reasons we are successful. I think teachers feel the same way. 800 teachers applied for 80 jobs this year at Green Dot. There is no teacher shortage; there is a work condition problem.

The Los Angeles public-school system isn't improved by making teachers immune from responsibility or accountability for their performance. These teachers need better working conditions. Charter schools have introduced a new dynamic into the teaching profession. Call it teacher liberation: teachers are no longer hostage to a one-tier system constrained by rules like teacher tenure that put "job security" above student outcomes and even teacher well being.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.

<< Previous day's Dust-Up   Next day's Dust-Up >>
Day 1  |  Day 2  |  Day 3  |  Day 4  |  Day 5

Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World