The reasons for job security provisions are valid and date back decades, but the system needs streamlining.

by Sigrid Bathen published May 20, 2009


Well into the 20th century, teachers in the United States were treated as school property, paid meager salaries and expected to do the bidding of boards and principals. Black teachers of either sex could teach only in substandard segregated schools, and female teachers — black or white — could be summarily dismissed for all variety of reasons: wearing skirts above the ankle, being out in the evenings or even getting married.

Mary Louise Phillips was a young elementary school teacher in Phoenix in the fall of 1941. She was teaching her first class of third-graders in a segregated school and quietly seeing a fellow teacher she had met in college, Wilson Riles, who worked seven hours of treacherous mountain roads away, at a one-room school for the children of black sawmill workers in the tiny northern Arizona town of McNary.

The two young teachers wanted to get married — but if they did, she would lose her Phoenix job immediately. “Wilson said I had to consent to marry him,” recalls Mary Louise Riles, now 89, “or he’d have to stop making that drive.” So they eloped, managing to keep the marriage secret for a couple of months, until she joined her husband as a teacher in McNary, where the rules for married teachers were less rigid.

Three decades later, Wilson Riles would be elected California superintendent of public instruction, becoming California’s first African American elected to statewide office.

The origins of teacher tenure are firmly rooted in rank discrimination against women and were closely tied to the women’s rights movement. California was the first state to mandate “permanent” status for teachers, after two years on the job, in 1921. Other states followed. But most of those gains were swept away in the midst of the Depression. And in one form or another, capricious, even sexist rules governing teachers were commonplace well into the 1960s and ’70s. All teachers were at risk if they spoke out at board meetings or engaged in political activity that went against prevailing opinions in their districts.

In one key California case, Paul Finot, who taught at John Muir High School in Pasadena, was reassigned to home teaching in 1963 for refusing to shave a beard he’d grown over the summer. Eventually vindicated by an appeals court, he was asked in a lower court hearing if his beard was “an outgrowth” of his “radicalism,” and he replied that it was “an outgrowth of my six-week fishing trip.”

It was in that era that newly emergent teachers unions used their growing clout to challenge the laws and push for tenure everywhere — along with better pay, collective bargaining and due process in disciplinary actions that included the establishment of a quasi-judicial system to oversee dismissals. But nearly four decades after those victories, the system originally designed to improve working conditions and protect teachers against arbitrary terminations has evolved into a tangled and costly bureaucratic nightmare.

Critics argue that tenure protects incompetent teachers beyond all reason, keeping them on at a time when schools face draconian budget cuts, high dropout rates and gaping inequalities. Teachers’ groups counter that teachers deserve due process and that administrators fail to properly document and prove poor teaching.

Although measures to curb abuses of the dismissal process, and even to abolish tenure altogether, have been recently introduced in several states, such measures continue to meet fierce opposition from teachers unions, which are loath to give up any of the hard-won job protections built up over decades.

Clearly, the public’s patience is wearing thin. (A recent Times series documented the cumbersome discipline and dismissal process for teachers in horrific detail.) The layoffs of thousands of mostly younger, newly minted teachers in budget-strapped California has only exacerbated disaffection with the deeply troubled seniority system, which governs layoffs as well as assignments of “surplus” teachers when schools are closed or programs cut.

Privately, and sometimes publicly, traditionally warring education organizations — teachers unions and school administrators — insist they want lousy teachers removed from the classroom. But they rarely stand together on even the general parameters of a viable solution. Schools need better documentation of incompetent teaching, more support for teachers and fewer standardized directives on how to teach. All of this requires cooperation and compromise, and costs money.

Any overhaul of “post-tenure” teacher discipline must peel away multiple layers of administrative and legislative changes made over decades in order to create a more sensible and coherent system — one that recognizes the due process rights of teachers as well as ways to help them move on.

But any movement toward streamlining the process must begin with less finger-pointing and more serious dialogue among the key players in state education policy. This is not a new sentiment — but one that remains singularly unpopular in the state Capitol, where teachers unions (and their hefty campaign contributions) wield enormous clout.


Sigrid Bathen is a longtime education writer who teaches journalism at Cal State Sacramento.