Over the objections of the entire teaching profession in Florida, the Legislature has voted to eliminate teacher tenure and replace it with a new system where school principals can essentially fire at will.
Republicans who control the Legislature did this to neuter the power of public school teachers and their union. Now, unless teacher tenure is rescued by Gov. Charlie Crist, who sometimes puts the public interest before partisanship, a vital part of the profession will be lost.
I am emotionally invested in this debate as a child of two public school teachers in New York. There were some very lean years during my childhood as my parents struggled to make it on my dad's teacher salary. (My mom returned to the profession later.) But there was always that precious sense of security in knowing that my dad's job was protected by a fair system of due process.
Schools are highly political, with school board members running for office on various planks, including cultural flashpoints such as bringing creationism to the science classroom. (See Florida, Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, etc.) Teachers need protection from these political winds just as a civil service system shields state and federal workers from their partisan bosses.
In my family, because of tenure, we didn't have to worry that my father's activity in the teachers' union would upset the administration during tense contract negotiations and lead to revenge later.
We didn't have to worry that as the years passed and my father's salary rose far higher than a new teacher's, the school district might look to save money by getting rid of the oldsters.
We didn't have to worry that when a new reform effort swept through the school system, he would be reformed right out of a job. We didn't have to worry that his teaching of evolutionary biology might erupt into controversy that could upend his security. My dad even gave a failing grade to the daughter of the president of the board of education. Imagine doing that without tenure.
His strength and dignity as a professional educator for 37 years came from knowing that he could only be fired for being ineffective or some other just cause, and the school district would have to prove its allegations. Such protection from the whims and pettiness of a principal is empowering, and the rewards are not just personal.
Take a current case in Pinellas County involving John Hopkins Middle School, where 60 student arrests since the start of the school year made for shocking headlines. Twenty-nine teachers and staff members wrote a letter to the school superintendent and school board last month pointing out how the school's "inept" administration failed to take needed action after members of rival neighborhood gangs were assigned there. The letter also alleged that the school's "discipline data" have been deliberately tinkered with to hide the onslaught of problems.
This kind of insight would never have been offered had the principal been able to decide who stays and who goes every year. The teachers wouldn't have uttered a peep, except whispers among themselves.
That said, teachers know their profession needs more rigorous performance standards and an easier method of ousting incompetents. The image of the so-called rubber rooms in New York City makes the case. Unfit teachers are sent there while they fight their dismissal, a fight that can take years.
But change can be accomplished without blowing up tenure. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is pushing for sensible reforms to teacher evaluations. They need to be transformed from perfunctory and unhelpful exercises into a comprehensive review of a teacher's ability and effectiveness. She is also calling for a better way to adjudicate teacher misconduct cases, allowing for quicker removal.
There is a middle ground between at-will employment and years of hearings before dismissal. Job security is a perk of teaching that encourages smart people into the field. It allows for autonomy and creativity in the classroom and encourages teachers to bring school-based problems out in the open. If it goes away, so will good teachers.