Teachers need tenure, but the public needs for them to have it even more
Every person in Beaufort County (or North Carolina for that matter) who is interested in public education should have been at the Conservative Republicans Club Thursday (7-10-14) night. Sen. Bill Cook gave a "Legislative Update" in which he reported on the latest events in Raleigh related to the teacher pay raise issue. Cook noted in his report that the Senate had dropped its position on abolishing tenure for teachers who are already employed until the previous law that we've operated under for more than thirty years in North Carolina is phased out as new employees are excluded from being eligible for tenure.
Here's the way I see the debate, at the meeting and on the issue in general.
Everyone wants good teachers in our schools. Almost no one wants bad teachers protected from being terminated. Some contend that it is too hard to fire bad teachers. So it makes sense to these people that "tenure" should be eliminated.
I have written often here that tenure is not the problem. I argued that same point at the meeting Thursday night. I also argued then, and do here, that eliminating tenure is a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease.
If you've read this far in this article you have a higher than typical interest in public education. Most people, other than teachers or those with an axe to grind against teachers, don't care a wit about whether teachers have tenure or not. But it is a very important issue for our schools. If you do a site search of this website for "Eastern Elementary" you will find several articles on the Eastern Elementary transfers. That's the case the Beaufort County School Board lost when the board violated the teachers' rights in punishing them for speaking out against a reading program the teachers did not feel was in the best interest of the students. Turns out the teachers were right about the reading program. It was rife with political corruption, not student learning.
A more recent example of school board abuse of power was the case in Perquimans County where the evidence showed that a "good teacher" was fired because a single school board member wanted her fired and the other board members went along with it. All too often this is the case. It is often "I'll support you when you want something, if you'll support me when I want something."
It is precisely because of abuses like these that the current law was enacted.
That law provides for a probationary period during which a teacher may be terminated "for any reason the board deems sufficient" at the end of each year during the probationary period. The only restriction is that the action must not be arbitrary, capricious, discriminatory or an abuse of discretion.
Then when a teacher has successfully completed the probationary period they achieve "career status." That's what they call "tenure."
But any career status teacher may still be terminated for any one of fifteen reasons, including "inadequate performance, neglect of duty, failure to follow the policies of the local board of education, immorality" or violating state law, plus a score of other reasons. To say that you can't get rid of a bad teacher is pure nonsense.
Likewise, to say that the union protects bad teachers is nonsense. In my experience, the NCAE has more often convinced a teacher to resign after investigating and seeing the evidence we had on the teacher. They seldom waste legal fees on cases they can't win. The union does provide legal assistance to teacher who are members. But that does not prohibit the termination of a teacher who deserves to be terminated.
That reminds me of a quick "war story." I walked into a courtroom one time with our attorney for a hearing on a teacher dismissal case. The NCAE attorney came over and introduced himself. Very professional. He chatted with our attorney until I heard him as: "Phil, how many of these kinds of cases have you ever tried?" "A few dozen..." was the reply. "And how many have you ever won?" the NCAE attorney asked. "All of them" came the reply from our attorney. "Then you've got some good administrators." Less than a half hour later the teacher resigned and the two attorneys agreed to dismiss the case before the first witness was ever called.
Having said that I will hasten to say: It is not easy to dismiss a career teacher. But it should not be easy. Good administrators who do their homework seldom lose. But they must know what they are doing and be supported by strong superintendents and school boards.
So on one hand you have a long line of cases in which school boards, superintendents and principals have abused the rights of teachers. On the other hand you have almost no instances of when school officials lost when they moved to terminate a bad teacher and they did their homework. And that is precisely how it should be.
I've taught this to hundreds of school administrators over the years: "There is no such thing as a weak teacher. There are only weak administrators."
Finally, a word about this "the union protects poor teachers..." argument. That may be true in union states but it is not true in North Carolina. School boards in North Carolina are prohibited by law from entering into "union contracts." There simply is no such thing in this state. In North Carolina, the terms and conditions of employment for teachers, principals and other educators is governed by state law (NCGS 115C-325). There are no union contracts in this state.
The loss of tenure is much more serious for the public than it is for teachers. When teachers are put at the mercy of weak or bad administrators they are less likely to blow the whistle on things that should be exposed and they are much more likely to not stand up for what is in the best interest of students. On balance, the public is better served by teachers having reasonable security than it is by them fearing to speak up and challenge corrupt administrators and school board members.
It is better for the Legislature to leave well enough alone.
Delma Blinson writes the "Teacher's Desk" column for our friend in the local publishing business: The Beaufort Observer. His concentration is in the area of his expertise - the education of our youth. He is a former teacher, principal, superintendent and university professor.