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The lights went up in the Hillcrest movie theater.
Parents and business moguls murmured about Waiting for Superman, a film that took teachers unions to task for failing schools. The movie aimed some of its harshest barbs at teacher tenure, arguing that it makes bad teachers impossible to fire.
Bill Freeman, the teachers union president, was there to persuade them it was wrong. A business group had invited Freeman onto a panel after the film. The room was tense as he sat down below the darkened screen. Freeman wanted to debunk the whole movie, a film he believes scapegoats teachers.
He made an argument that just seemed to baffle the crowd.
Teachers here don’t have tenure, Freeman argued. Tenure doesn’t exist.
Welcome to probably the most toxic topic in schools. It’s so polarized that educators even disagree over what to even call it. California law actually calls it “permanent status,” which is why Freeman balked at the word.
Here’s how it works:
It’s a high-stakes decision that’s made in a relatively short period of time.
A new teacher usually must spend two years in the classroom before becoming a permanent employee. During that probationary period, a teacher can be let go at the end of the year for almost any reason.
California has a shorter probation period than most other states.
“It’s pretty hairy deciding someone’s career. People tend to be conservative,” said Bruce McGirr, school administrators union director. “Then you see a teacher three or four years down the line and you say, ‘Who was the idiot who hired this person?’”
Some cull out poor performers more aggressively than others: Grossmont Union High School District estimated it turns away 7 percent of probationary teachers. Sweetwater denied tenure to 5 percent last year. In San Diego Unified, only two probationary teachers weren’t given tenure, about 1 percent.
It hasn’t always been that sparing. San Diego Unified once cut 38 teachers in a single year by one count.
It’s once a teacher becomes permanent that they get harder to fire.
California requires school districts to give teachers who are accused of poor performance at least 90 days to fix it. They get less time if they’re accused of “unprofessional conduct” such as being drunk in class or harassing a coworker.
Fired teachers can take their case to a panel that includes one educator chosen by the union, one chosen by the school district and an administrative law judge. Teachers can then appeal to Superior Court and an appeals court. School districts are reluctant to press cases they might not win: If the district loses a case against teachers, it must pay their legal fees.
Labor leaders dislike calling it “tenure,” which refers to job protections for university professors. Tenure is supposed to give professors total academic freedom. Teachers don’t have that.
Critics of the system argue that despite the differences, it still amounts to the same thing.
“Imagine you put in a couple of good years and you’re guaranteed a good job for the rest of your life. Why should teachers have that?” asked Larry Rosenstock, CEO of the High Tech High charter schools.
It isn’t impossible to fire a permanent teacher, but it can take time and money.
Long before the school board votes to fire a teacher, principals need to back up a case against them by documenting what they’re doing wrong. Sometimes that’s easy: Teachers accused of serious abuses or crimes, such as molesting a child, are ejected from the classroom immediately while the district or police investigate.
It can be much more difficult if a principal believes a teacher is ineffective, apathetic or lazy. Clifford Weiler, an attorney for school districts, said it is even harder if a teacher has taught for a long time, especially if they have a history of good evaluations.
McGirr estimated that building a successful case against an ineffective teacher takes two or three years and at least 20 evaluations, even though the rules don’t require it.
Labor attorney Fern Steiner said it can be done in a year, but principals usually take longer.
Time stops some principals from even trying. “Administrators are incredibly busy,” said Rich Gibson, a professor emeritus of education at San Diego State University. He argues that tenure is reasonable and doesn’t bar principals from firing teachers, but many principals have no idea how to do it.
Principals and superintendents who oppose tenure say the exacting process and high burden of proof go too far. For instance, the Los Angeles Times reported that one teacher allegedly told a boy who tried to commit suicide to cut deeper. Another stashed porn in his desk. Both protested their firings and won.
Most tenure rules are in state law.
Local school districts also sign agreements with their unions, which can complicate the process. In San Diego Unified, for instance, a principal must meet with a struggling teacher, create a plan to help them improve, and give them at least 50 work days to shape up before a final evaluation.
If they don’t do that properly, their evaluation can be overturned.
Now here’s what can happen at a school without tenure: Two years ago, almost all of the teachers at the struggling King-Chavez Arts Academy were dismissed after test scores had stagnated. Teachers were stunned and said it was unfair because they got little explanation and little help before they were cut loose.
Unions say the rules are strict for good reason and prevent principals from making rash decisions or not spelling out reasons for a firing. “It protects whistleblowers. Schools just can’t retaliate and say, ‘You’re gone,’” said Chula Vista teacher Jim Groth, a California Teachers Association board member.
Firings are rare in local school districts: No permanent teachers were fired in Grossmont, Sweetwater or Poway schools last year.
In San Diego Unified, only 17 out of more than 7,000 teachers were dismissed over the past five years. More than half of them were employees who just didn’t show up.
Teachers unions and school district officials alike argue that the numbers are deceptive, since many faltering teachers leave on their own.
For instance, in 2003, 16 out of 18 San Diego Unified teachers who were warned that they would be fired for poor performance decided to resign instead, according to a University of San Diego study. The others were fired.
Weakening tenure is in vogue with some reformers and the Obama administration. Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek, who champions tenure reform, argues that just firing the worst teachers could put U.S. schools near the top worldwide. Other states are trying to make it harder to get tenure, including tying it to student achievement.
Ken Futernick, who directs a school turnaround center, argues retaining more teachers and helping them improve would do more to help schools than firing.
While Waiting for Superman has stoked the debate, it has stayed theoretical for now. “The chances of changing it are not very realistic. Even if you did change it,” said Frank Kemerer, a University of San Diego education law professor, “what would you change it to?”