Tenure, which has removed much of the injustice and politics from the discipline or dismissal of teachers remains one of the most misunderstood provisions of New York’s Education Law.
Perhaps the most widely believed myth associated with tenure – spread by critics of public education – is that tenure provides teachers with a job for life. That is just not true!
Teachers do have certain job protections, and history has shown that they need them. However, tenured teachers can be, and have been, dismissed. The tenure law in New York simply guarantees that if charges are brought against teachers who have completed a probationary period they have the right to due process – a concept grounded in the U.S. Constitution.
For tenured teachers, due process is a formal, legal procedure that guarantees them the right to have allegations against them – such as misconduct, incompetence or insubordination – heard by an impartial hearing officer or a three-member panel. Tenured teachers may be represented by a lawyer, present evidence on their own behalf and cross-examine witnesses.
If the hearing officer or panel ultimately sustains the charges made against a tenured teacher, the teacher can be disciplined or discharged for reasons specified by law. The law requires that administrators follow proper procedures when disciplining a teacher or risk losing their case because of procedural errors.
The tenure system is well-established in New York. The state’s first tenure law, which affected only teachers in New York City districts, took effect in 1917. Teachers in all other districts continued to be employed by contract, subject to arbitrary dismissal, until 1937, when tenure was broadened to protect teachers in certain Union Free School Districts. By 1945, the law was amended to provide virtually all New York State public school teachers with some basic due process rights. However, the law didn’t provide adequate protection for teachers. For the next quarter-century, right through the 1960s, tenured teachers were still subject to the disciplinary whims of school administrators who could bring them up on a catch-all charge of “conduct unbecoming a teacher,” and turn the matter over to the local school board to conduct a hearing.
Depending on the local board’s political agenda and judgment on what was considered improper conduct, a teacher could face dismissal for anything from marrying or divorcing to supporting the “wrong” political candidate or the “incorrect political issues.” In fact, it wasn’t too long ago that women had to leave their teaching positions when they became pregnant.
It was not until 1970 that partisan school board hearing panels were replaced with independent panels whose members were selected by the school district and the teacher. The three- member panels could hold a disciplinary hearing and then make recommendations that school boards could follow or ignore. In 1977, the law was strengthened to give the panels power to issue decisions that were binding on all parties, unless they were successfully appealed to the Commissioner of Education or the courts.
Attacks on Tenure
Despite modifications to the teacher tenure law, the concept of tenure, and the process guaranteed by the statute, continue to be attacked. There remains a basic misunderstanding about what having tenure really means, often fueled by some who would rather abolish the law than apply it fairly and competently. Many school boards find it easier to blame the tenure law than to demand accountability from the supervisors who hire and evaluate teachers – and who are empowered by the law to dismiss them.
Few people are familiar with the laws that govern tenure. That makes it easier for school boards to perpetuate the myth that tenure provides lifetime job security for all teachers and protects the incompetent – rather than admit they are not meeting their own responsibilities as employers.
Beyond providing due process for teachers, tenure protects the educational system and students from abuses that threaten the quality of our schools. It ensures that school districts will not be tempted to get rid of experienced teachers to save money. It keeps a competent teacher from being fired to make way for someone who is less qualified academically, but better connected politically.
The rights given to teachers through tenure are like the rights provided all Americans through our criminal justice system. Tenured teachers cannot be “convicted” without due process and are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Tenure, which protects academic freedom the way the First Amendment protects free speech, was born out of the basic realization that teachers can engage their students in a free exchange of ideas only if they are protected from arbitrary dismissal for doing so.
Tenure laws ensure that competent teachers can function as professionals, free from political influence and without fear of reprisals for exercising the right to exchange ideas with students in a forum that benefits the entire community.