The tenure controversy: Teachers examine pros cons of security

“Who else has the requirement to regularly assess people as teachers do?” Carmel High School social studies teacher Bill Schrier asks. “There is a constant and frequent need to grade people in a way that really matters. So wouldn’t you want those people to have independence, or rather them be subject to pressure of outside influence?”

The independence and protection from outside influence that tenure provides teachers is the single strongest argument, according to Schrier. In California, teachers in public schools must be evaluated during their first two years and can then receive tenure, which is ultimately job protection. Teachers themselves have differing and opposing views on the matter, developing into a greater controversy.

“If you ask any teacher on this campus, all of them can agree that someone has asked them to change a grade,” Schrier says. “Tenure protects teachers from pressure of powerful parents or the administration.”

Similarly, math teacher Juan Gomez, who has been teaching for 13 years, explains that each teacher has roughly 150 students which constitutes 300 parents, each with a unique view on how to raise their children since teachers are essentially raising the students at a certain level of interaction.

“When serving an entire classroom of students, to have one disagreement on one day with one student, and have that be the reason why I am no longer able to serve the other students,” Gomez says, “it seems like it isn’t the right way to go about business.”

All public school teachers must belong to the teacher union or pay fees. At CUSD all of the teachers belong to the Association of Carmel Teachers, according to Schrier, ACT’s president.

“Our purposes are to represent the teachers of CUSD in contract negotiations, speak on behalf of the teachers of the district, to help resolve problems, to promote professionalism and ethical conduct among our members and to advocate for those things we believe will best allow us to teach the students of the district,” Schrier explains.

However, from a teacher standpoint, tenure serves a purpose on a more personal level as well. Principal Rick Lopez, who has been a principal at CHS for eight years, recalls that before going into teaching, he was a construction worker and could be fired at any time.

“Although I didn’t get into teaching because of tenure,” Lopez says, “having that job security was a relief as opposed to my time as a construction worker.”

In some states, tenure has been abolished, and California moved to do away with tenure in 2012 in the Vergara case in which nine public school students filed a lawsuit to strike it down due to students being attached to ineffective teachers. While the court did find tenure unconstitutional, the case went on appeal and tenure stayed in place.

According to the New York Times, these students were backed by the organization Students Matter, whose attorney argued that the “dance of the lemons,” in which ineffective teachers were shuffled from school to school and ended up in communities with disproportionately large numbers of poor and minority students. One of the students explained that teachers were wearing students out and constantly telling them that they would never amount to anything.

While ineffective or simply bad teachers may be in any school district, most administrators are not happy with the tenure system. According to a news survey of more than 500 California school principals, 69 percent said they were dissatisfied with the tenure system of California and only 11 percent were satisfied. At least at CHS, Lopez does not find tenure to be an issue and sees it in a positive light.

“I support tenure at CHS because it is an actual process in our system,” says Lopez, who participates in the hiring, evaluating and deciding whether a teacher stays. “With this job protection, teachers can teach in a positive environment and feel comfortable in the classroom so they can effectively teach to our students.”

In a 2015 online questionnaire answered by more than 500 public school teachers, 81 percent agreed that tenure was important to them personally while 55 percent declared they worked at a school where ineffective teachers were protected by tenure.

Some teachers after receiving tenure choose to not put as much effort into their classes, such as was noted by English teacher Dale DePalatis, who has been teaching for 30 years.

“While I was a student teacher, I was observing my former tennis coach’s class and noticed how he was never really teaching and was always having his students watch movies,” DePalatis says. “When I asked him why he didn’t care, he said it was because he had tenure and near impossible to fire.”

Although tenure does offer job protection, it is not impossible to fire a teacher, except for the extraneous process and costliness involved. According to Schrier, large sums of money are involved in the process of firing a teacher, and since all teachers are protected by the teacher union, the process can cause even more duress.

“All tenured teachers are entitled to due process” Schrier says. “It’s a long process since teachers can have a hearing and appeal, and amounts to great legal costs to the district if an employee utilizes all the steps.”

While most core academic teachers receive tenure, those who teach Regional Occupational Program courses do not, such as Sports Medicine teacher Jay Christiansen. Growing up with his father as a teacher, the idea of tenure ensured job security for his family. While Christiansen lacks the job protection that his father had, he does not view it negatively as the ROP classes that are taught at CHS could easily be dismissed to better represent the student’s interest.

“The ROP classes are for the students,” says Christiansen, who has been teaching at CHS for three years. “And I know my tenure is doing a good job. I have this mental job security in which I know I’ll keep my job because I’m a good teacher and I do my best all the time.”

While support for tenure is somewhat consistent throughout CHS, opposition to the system exists. Seventh-year CHS English teacher Whitney Grummon explains that after seeing ineffective teachers protected under tenure, she disagrees with the system, and if it were up to her, she would abolish it. Instead, she believes that teachers must trust the professionalism of the school administration.

“In my first year at Carmel, there was a parent who was unhappy with a book I was teaching in class,” Grummon says. “However, I explained my position and I was supported by the Department of Education, the school administration and principal.”

Although teachers being complacent is not truly an issue at CHS, Lopez explains that what matters most is the students.

“Most people get into teaching because they have a have a heart for kids and teaching,” Lopez says.  “They’re idealistic. It’s a trait of all passionate and effective teachers, and whatever system or tool supports this and allows them to be the best is what I truly support, whether it be tenure or not.”

-Joyce Doherty