If you think New York’s teacher unions are going crazy over state cuts in education aid and talk of pay freezes, just think how they’d react to an attempt to take away their precious tenure. In fact, in the Washington, D.C. school system, Chancellor Michelle Rhee tried to get teachers to give up their virtual jobs for life by offering to pay them up to $130,000 a year -- and they would have none of it.
But there are still steps that can be taken to mitigate some of the worst effects of the system. Rhee has accomplished it through negotiation. New York state has a chance to do it with legislation.
In D.C. an agreement was announced last week between the school administration and teachers’ union (negotiations were led by national American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who until recently headed the New York City teachers’ union). In return for 20 percent raises in base pay over five years, the union leadership agreed to a performance-based bonus system; greater autonomy for school administration in where teachers are assigned (unwanted teachers could no longer be forced on principals); and a means of getting rid of minimally effective or ineffective teachers through buyouts or early retirement. Tenure hasn’t been eliminated, but it has been redefined. The contract, which will be financed by $64 million from four foundations, is still subject to ratification by the full membership and approval by the D.C. Council.
And in New York state we have a bill in both the Assembly and Senate education committees designed to streamline and make less costly the process of getting rid of an unfit or incompetent tenured teacher. That process now takes an average of 525 days and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, including paid leave for the teacher, which is why few districts even attempt it. (And why New York City has those “rubber rooms,” where teachers are paid to do nothing.)
The legislation would cap paid leave for suspended teachers at 120 days. That means teachers would have an incentive not to drag the case out. And they’d be more likely to start looking for a job in another line of work.
Another key change would be to have the education commissioner appoint a hearing officer specially trained in tenure law within 10 days of a request by the district, instead of requiring an officer acceptable to both parties, which now often contributes to long delays.
Districts could also immediately fire without a hearing teachers and administrators convicted of certain felonies, including sex crimes, or those who have lost their certification.
If the Senate and Assembly want to show they are not totally in the pocket of the teachers’ union, they will pass this common-sense legislation.