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A retired Dougco teacher's take on tenure

There has been much discussion of late about teacher tenure and whether it impedes reform and the quality of public education by protecting bad teachers. EdNews Parent expert and retired Dougco teacher R. Kim Herrell shares his personal views on the subject.

You would think this would be simple to answer, but in the three school law courses I have taken, the issue of teacher tenure has been one of the most hotly debated. Some folks in the general public, led by others with a clear anti-union agenda, seem to think that it is a magic forcefield that makes teachers untouchable, at least from firing. In my opinion, that is simply not the case. It has never been that way, but it sure can look that way if procedures aren’t followed.

In my first school law course, we were asked to equate tenure with “due process.” Teachers who didn’t behave for three years would have to be told why they were being fired and could counter the firing at a hearing. The administration and district could move for dismissal, though, of a teacher anytime during those first three years: first week; first semester; first year; second; third.

That doesn’t sound so bad to me.

Due process itself, however, is a little more complicated. The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that the government may not “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” In the case of Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that even teachers could expect procedural due process. It listed four distinct steps in due process:

  • Tenured teachers must be given notice of dismissal, written or oral
  • The reasons must be noted
  • An explanation of the evidence must be provided by the employer
  • A fair and meaningful hearing must be given the teacher if requested

So, after three years, a teacher gets to learn why he or she is being dismissed and can present contrary evidence in a fair hearing. I think anyone would want to know why they were being dismissed. Because due process requires reasons and evidence from the employer, it keeps firings from being arbitrary and capricious.

One long discussion in the first school law class I took centered around a small school district in southeastern Colorado that fired all its teachers after three years, only to rehire them one month later. This kept all teachers in that district from ever reaching a tenured level.

The second school law course ignited a small celebration over the fact that Colorado labor law extended due process to all workers. Employers had to tell an employee why she was being let go. So where did that leave teacher tenure? No one really knew. And what about teacher evaluation systems? No one saw them going away.

The third school law course, the most comprehensive of the lot, explained how through labor agreements, a form of tenure (teacher protection) and teacher evaluation could continue. School district management wanted a way to streamline teacher dismissal, especially in the first three years. Labor leaders agreed. They didn’t want incompetent members, either. The current systems of teacher evaluation in Colorado are supported by both labor and district management.

Enter Colorado Senate Bill 191. Colorado has very little industry from which to gain school funds so we get a piece of property taxes and car sales taxes. So, we passed SB-191 to improve our schools. The main focus of the legislation is to get rid of bad teachers and put an effective teacher in front of all students in the state. Noble, but that has always been the goal of education. It will go through development and trials from now until 2013 and be implemented in 2013-14.

Under the new law, teachers will be able to gain, lose or regain tenure by jumping through the right hoops. School districts, with less money and less evaluators, are to do more evaluation than before, still manage the school, provide vision and leadership, and discipline those few students who need disciplining. The new legislation wants to get rid of “ineffective” teachers but doesn’t define what that is. I’m dizzy.

SB-191 has left us not knowing what tenure is, if due process will be followed, or how an ineffective teacher is defined. Nor does it provide money to help school districts to evaluate their staffs or hire the most effective teachers (depending on the survey, Colorado is somewhere between 49th and 39th in school funding).

Clear as mud? Turns out I can’t tell you what tenure is anymore, or whether there will be due process for teachers in the future. The state doesn’t seem to have the answers, either.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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