Why Tenure Matters

Teacher tenure is under attack in New York state and nationwide. In July 2014, two lawsuits were filed — Davids v. New York and Wright v. New York — that claim New York's tenure laws deprive students of their right to a sound basic education. The lawsuits specifically attack the tenure process, the use of seniority in layoffs, and the three-year probationary period for new teachers, which they claim is too short. Former news anchor Campbell Brown, fronting for a shadowy group calling itself the Partnership for Educational Justice, is bankrolling the Wright case.  Brown, who won’t disclose her financial backers, makes the unsupported claim that tenure is responsible for low student achievement.

The New York state lawsuits were filed after a lower-court ruling in the case of Vergara v. California gutted that state’s tenure laws. NYSUT attorneys believe the California ruling will be overturned on appeal — but meanwhile it has emboldened copycat suits across the country. Bankrolled by the wealthy elite and anti-union forces, these attacks represent an all-out assault on the fundamental labor rights of working people.

NYSUT is mounting an aggressive and vigorous defense of tenure both in the courts and the court of public opinion.

What’s really important

New York state is widely recognized for its exemplary teaching force and has earned high marks for its rigorous standards and credentialing requirements — typically ranking among the nation’s top ten. Tenure is just one of  the safeguards New York state has put in place to ensure every student has an effective teacher. A teacher must earn tenure after three years or more of effective teaching, oversight and evaluation. A teacher then is entitled to a fair hearing before being fired — a basic due process right.  Focusing on a due process right that is used by a very few is a distraction from what must be our main priority: ensuring every child has an effective teacher. We need to focus on what helps students the most: recruiting and retaining quality teachers and providing the resources to help every child succeed.

Three key points about tenure

New York state’s rigorous teaching standards provide many safeguards that ensure children have good teachers.  Tenure is one of them.

Tenure is a safeguard that ensures good teachers can speak up for their students.

  • Tenure helps safeguard children's right to an effective education because it provides teachers freedom to advocate for their students without fear of reprisal. Because tenure exists, teachers in New York state can speak out freely on issues such as over-testing, cuts in academic programs, elimination of art, music and language and inappropriate placements for students with disabilities.
    Without tenure, working under the constant threat of arbitrary firing would have a chilling effect on a teacher’s professional judgment and create an environment that would erode, not enhance, educational quality.
  • There is no evidence that teachers’ employment rights have anything to do with student achievement. Teachers in the wealthiest districts have the identical due process and seniority rights as teachers in the poorest districts — yet students in wealthy districts have much higher graduation and college acceptance rates. The real factor contributing to these differences in achievement is poverty.
    Students in our poorer districts have the greatest educational needs but are given the least resources, with our richest districts spending 180 percent as much on education as our poorer districts do.
    Tenure is essential in empowering teachers to make the case that all students deserve an effective education — not just those who happen to be the children of hedge-fund millionaires. Attacking tenure, and seeking to make teachers vulnerable to being fired at will is a smokescreen for failing to tackle the real reason why students struggle: poverty.
    Blaming tenure for low student performance is as illogical as it is inflammatory.
  • Student safety is paramount and it is safeguarded under the state’s tenure laws. Teacher-supported changes to the law in 2008 mean that any teacher, tenured or not, will automatically lose both job and teaching license if guilty of certain sexual offenses — without recourse to a hearing.
  • Blaming low-student achievement on teacher tenure —a meritless claim not supported by any evidence — is like blaming the due process granted to police officers for crime or blaming the due process granted to firefighters for fire.
  • If the wealthy elite truly cared about advancing student achievement they would partner with parents and teachers to achieve state budgets that provide equitable funding for all schools.  They would oppose the state's tax cap, which worsens constraints on local communities. Instead, the wealthy elite and corporate forces are missing-in-action in these critically important battles. Teachers and parents stand together in calling for a renewed focus on learning and for the resources our students need to be prepared for college and career.

Tenure is a safeguard that protects good teachers from unfair firing — a basic due process right

  • Though it's been on the books for more than a century, New York state's tenure laws remain wildly misunderstood. Tenure, simply put, is a safeguard that protects good teachers from unfair firing. Once a teacher is granted tenure — a right that must be earned after three years or more of service, oversight and evaluation — a teacher cannot be fired without a fair hearing. Tenure does not mean a job for life. It means simply that a teacher has the right to a fair hearing on charges that could end a career. This is fundamental due process — an American value enshrined in our Bill of Rights and one that is not reserved only for the wealthy elite.
  • Tenure must be earned. It is not automatic. During a teacher’s three-year probation, school officials carefully evaluate that teacher's job performance. Upon completion of that evaluation, the local school board then votes whether to grant tenure — which simply means the teacher cannot be fired without a fair hearing.
  • Tenure is a safeguard that protects teachers’ civil rights. Tenure ensures good teachers cannot be fired for reasons of race, gender, age, religion, handicapping condition or sexual orientation. It ensures that good teachers cannot be fired because of cronyism or local politics. It ensures they cannot be fired for pregnancy. Before tenure was in place, teachers could — and did — lose their jobs for arbitrary and politically motivated reasons, or for no reason at all.
  • Seniority rights, which like tenure are a fundamental employment right, ensure that when layoffs are unavoidable, they are conducted fairly and objectively. A system based on seniority guards against abuses by those who would use ‘layoffs’ as another way to fire those who advocate too fiercely for their students or are at the top of the pay scale.
  • The obscene, profit-motivated attacks on the rights of working people in places like California and New York are why America no longer has the world's largest middle class. Fundamental rights for workers are essential to a decent standard of living in New York state. And fundamental rights for teachers are essential to fairness and defending what students need.

Tenure is working in New York state

  • New York's teacher tenure law was amended in 2012 to address criticism that hearings took too long and cost too much. Now, all hearings, by law, must be resolved within 155 days from the point in which formal charges are presented against a teacher. The improved tenure law means swifter consequences for anyone who violates public trust. And when school districts misuse the law or bring baseless charges, innocent teachers are being returned to the classroom more swiftly.
  • Teacher discipline hearings are now being completed faster and more cost effectively — typically in five months. State Education Department data confirm the statewide trend: Decisions and settlements in teacher-discipline hearings are being reached faster since the 2012 changes.
  • Teachers' unions do not negotiate tenure. The first tenure statute in New York state was enacted in 1897 — 70 years before public-sector unions had a right to bargain here — in recognition of society’s deep interest in safeguarding its teachers from unfair firing and political pressure.
  • In fact, tenure represents only a small portion of the safeguards and high standards New York state has put in place to ensure a quality teaching force. New York state is widely recognized for its effective and exemplary teachers and has earned high marks for its standards and credentialing requirements — typically ranking among the nation’s top ten.
  • New York state  requires numerous safeguards for ensuring the quality of aspiring teachers as well as seasoned teachers. A teacher must:
    • Be accepted to and graduate from an accredited institution of higher education with a minimum 2.5 GPA.
    • Complete General Core in Liberal Arts and Sciences - 30 Semester Hours
    • Complete Content Core - 30 Semester Hours.
    • Complete Pedagogical Core - 21 Semester Hours
    • Successfully complete 40 days of student teaching:
    • Pass required tests such as:
      • New York State Teacher Certification Exam - Academic Literacy Skills Test (ALST)
      • New York State Teacher Certification Exam - Educating All Students Test (EAS)
      • edTPA
      • Content Specialty Test (CST)
    • Complete Workshops:
      • Child Abuse Identification
      • School Violence Intervention and Prevention
      • Dignity For All Students Act
    • Pass fingerprint clearance
    • Receive an initial certificate
    • An initial certificate is only valid for five years.  During that time, a teacher must complete the requirements for a:
      • Professional Certificate
      • Successfully complete additional education:
    • Master’s Degree
    • Graduate Coursework Content Core -12 S.H.
    • Three years of paid, full-time Classroom Teaching experience
    • One year of mentored experience
  • After obtaining a professional certificate, teachers must complete 175 hours of professional development every five years in order to maintain a valid teaching certificate.
  • Teachers also undergo an annual professional performance review, including multiple observations by a trained evaluator.
  • Accountability measures include annual release by the State Education Department of report cards publicly documenting performance data for every school in New York state.
  • NYSUT conservatively estimates, based on its member records, that almost one quarter of New York state teachers exit the profession in the first five years — some for personal reasons, many because of the high standards, rigorous requirements and challenging workload for public school teachers. The exit rate for teachers with fewer than five years of experience in 2011-12 was 23 percent— almost one-in-four. That percentage was consistent with the 5-year average (22.2 percent) dating back to the 2007-2008 school year, SED figures show. (New York State Education Department, School Report Card.) These exit rates make it clear that New York state’s high standards include many checkpoints where teachers who can’t make the grade voluntarily exit or are counseled out of the profession.