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Tag: 2009

Tackling the teacher tenure issue

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.

Viewpoints: Plan to close UC Center seems ill-advised

by Sigrid Bathen, special to The Bee published November 13th, 2009

Twenty-five University of California students and graduates from UC campuses were gathered around a long table in a windowless basement conference room in downtown Sacramento for a brown-bag lunch. On one side were 10 recent graduates, many working in and around the Capitol, who had participated in a popular public policy program – a program they say prepared them more than any other college experience for the realities of working in politics and public policy. Across the table at the recent gathering were 15 current students, many about to graduate with bachelor’s degrees from UC in such diverse fields as political science, mathematics, economics, sociology, psychology and literature.

The session was part of an intensive orientation at the University of California Center in Sacramento before students begin internships in state legislative and government offices, at nonprofits and lobbying and consulting firms. The grads were advising the new students on what to expect in their internships, how to get the most benefit from the experience. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” they said. And “show initiative.”

More than 500 students have completed the program since it began in 2004. But this gathering was “bittersweet,” as one student put it, because the fall-quarter class may be the last in a widely praised program that was abruptly suspended by UC President Mark Yudof in August, as UC officials struggle to balance a precarious budget. The action has generated a storm of criticism, and UC administrators are reportedly rethinking how they can keep the effective program in Sacramento.

One of the grads at the brown-bag lunch, Kelly Bradfield, came to the center as a “scholar-intern” in the summer of 2007; she was about to graduate from UC Berkeley with an English degree, specializing in gender and sexuality in literature. While considering a public policy career, she lacked practical experience. Placed in an internship with Planned Parenthood, she wrote a paper on the public policy aspects of mandatory vaccination for the HPV virus that causes cervical cancer and was later hired as a policy analyst at the UC Center. Echoing the views of other grads, she said the program “prepared me more than any other academic experience” for working in the Capitol.

Bradfield’s job and those of four other staffers, several adjunct professors and a visiting scholar were eliminated. Director Gary Dymski, who founded the center six years ago and taught many of its public policy classes, is teaching the current – and likely final – class but is expected to return to his tenured position as a UC Riverside economics professor.

Associate Director A.G. Block, a veteran Sacramento political editor who was hired in 2005 to oversee the center’s summer public affairs journalism internship program, remains as the center’s administrator. While the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism is one of the finest in the nation, UC has no undergraduate journalism major and offers few journalism classes; the intensive summer program was an effort to fill that gaping academic void.

University officials say the cuts to the UC Center saved the budget-strapped UC system $850,000, but those familiar with the center’s most recent proposed budget say it had been slashed to a bare-bones $650,000.

One block from the Capitol, the center served a rich mix of academic and public service functions and fostered an unusual sharing of public policy and media expertise among UC and California State University faculty, legislative and administration officials, nonprofits, lobbyists and other policy experts who participated in seminars on wide-ranging policy issues.

“It’s too valuable an institution to lose,” said Barbara O’Connor, a communications professor who heads the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at CSUS. She suggests UC administrators help “break down the silos” so ingrained in academic politics and work with CSU and the California Community Colleges to keep the center open.

State legislators and members of the UC Board of Regents have also reportedly urged Yudof to reconsider his decision. Rich Zeiger, chief of staff to Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, whose daughter was a UC Center intern and whose office employs another intern as a scheduler, said the UC Center is “one of the few programs that demonstrates to policymakers exactly what the university does – the teaching, the research and the public service. All are brought directly into legislators’ offices every day.” To abruptly discard that role is foolish, he added “particularly when UC relations with legislators are not the best.”

UC spokesman Peter King said the UC administration is engaged in “more detailed discussion” about the future of the center, and a decision will likely be made in December. UC Davis spokeswoman Maril Stratton confirmed reports that UCD administrators are having “initial discussions” with Yudof’s office about a possible “lead role” in maintaining the center.

Placing administrative responsibility for the center on one campus creates its own set of political hurdles and potential for inter-campus rivalries. “At the end of the day,” said Zeiger, “this needs to look to the students and the Legislature as it looks now – an independently functioning unit.”


Sigrid Bathen teaches journalism at California State University, Sacramento, and is a volunteer editor and mentor in the University of California Center journalism program. She can be reached at sbathen@csus.edu.

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