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Education Reporter

Why Bad Teachers Aren't Fired
Tenure makes this 'mission impossible'

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Teachers who drink alcohol before class, or even during class; teachers who deal drugs; teachers who can't read or do basic math - all are more commonplace than many parents realize, and their presence in America's classrooms is nothing new. So why can't these incompetent teachers be fired, as private-sector employees usually are if they drink on the job or prove unfit to perform required duties? The answer is tenure. About 80% of all public school teachers have tenure.

According to the Sept. 21 Investors Business Daily, estimates of the number of incompetent teachers range from a low of 5% to as many as 18% of the 2.6 million total, or between 135,000 and 468,000 bad teachers. Last spring, prospective teachers in Massachusetts made headlines when 59% failed a basic skills test (See Education Reporter, Sept. 1998). Teacher testing produced similar results in Nevada. Meanwhile, studies show that students subjected to such teachers in the early elementary grades can suffer long-term negative effects, even if they have good teachers later on.

Most new teachers face a probationary period of three to five years, after which they become tenured. All states and the District of Columbia have tenure laws that were negotiated by the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). While the unions insist that these laws are in place to protect good teachers by giving them due process rights, critics say that tenure and the unions are the problem.

Kansas state Rep. Kay O'Connor, who heads the Kansas City-based organization, Parents In Control, says tenure is an issue state legislatures don't want to touch. Quoted in Investors Business Daily, O'Connor says: "Tenure is a very hot issue. If a legislator brings it up, it's a battle royal. Unless you're molesting children or robbing banks, you can't be fired." She adds that allowing poor teachers to remain in the classroom means more remedial teachers will be needed, which puts more dues money in union coffers.

Rep. O'Connor notes that there are "more than 50 pro-union education lobbyists" at the Kansas Legislature. "The unions want as many teachers as possible, making as much money as possible. Their mission is teachers, not children."

New York state Assemblywoman Debra Mazzarelli told Investors Business Daily: "Our tenure laws protect ineffective and unmotivated teachers and administrators. Removing a tenured employee from his or her position is so difficult, expensive and time-consuming that, for all intents, it is impossible."

How expensive is it? A 1994 study by the New York State School Boards Association found that dismissing a tenured teacher in that state takes an average of 455 days and costs $177,000. If the teacher appeals, costs can approach twice that amount. Preparations for the required due process hearings take as long as six months, during which time suspended teachers in states such as Connecticut receive full salary. In addition, there are costs for substitute teachers and costs for the hearings. The process often ends with the school district either paying off or transferring the bad teacher.

Like the fox guarding the henhouse, the unions have taken over attempts to reform the tenure system. Their solution is an experimental "peer review" process that involves teachers evaluating teachers instead of principals evaluating teachers to determine who is incompetent. As education author and head of the Education Policy Institute, Myron Lieberman, observes: "Unions are aware of the charges that tenure protects bad teachers. So their attitude is, 'we'll take over the process.' If that happens, it'll make a worse disaster of the schools - if that's possible."

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