Commentary: Tenure's protections necessary
By Karen E. Magee
Sunday, July 20, 2014
Here's the truth about tenure: It is an absolutely necessary safeguard that allows all the good teachers in New York to speak freely as professionals on behalf of their students.
Unfortunately, misinformation about tenure persists, spread by the wealthy elite and anti-union forces who deliberately distort its meaning as part of their all-out war against workers' rights. More misrepresentations about tenure — from pseudo-experts like former CNN anchor Campbell Brown — will soon be coming to New York in the form of copycat lawsuits similar to the Vergara case now before the California courts.
Like the case against tenure in California, these will also be without merit.
History shows tenure's basic protections are necessary. In public education, 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. In fact, 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 at board meetings and oppose budget cuts that hurt students. And, in communities where rising property taxes are triggering 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 — a time in which thousands of would-be 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 — the same underpinning that shields good police officers, firefighters and other public servants from nepotism, favoritism, patronage and other forms of arbitrary dismissal — is the linchpin of our judicial system and a concept grounded in the U.S. Constitution.
New York's teacher tenure law has been streamlined in recent years to answer those who said due process hearings took too long and cost too much.
In 2012, the law was amended to require all disciplinary hearings to be completed within five months. Most are settled before it gets that far — evidence the changes are working.
The improved tenure process means, in those rare cases in which the public trust is violated, guilty teachers are being removed 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 their 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 expediently weeding out the very few bad ones who don't belong in our classrooms.
Karen E. Magee, a former elementary school teacher in Harrison, Westchester County, is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.