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Making the Grade

The case against tenure in public schools.

The Virginia legislature has been attracting a lot of justifiably harsh criticism lately for its foray into abortion politics. First, it was an outrageous bill that would have required women to undergo a trans-vaginal ultrasound before having an abortion; then, following a national outcry, that measure morphed into a bill requiring only an external ultrasound. (The second bill, which was eventually signed into law, was somewhat less offensive—but still despicable.)

Yet there was another noteworthy bill on an entirely different subject circulating in Richmond in recent weeks; and, with the spotlight focusing so squarely on the state’s approach to reproductive rights, it was perhaps no surprise that this measure didn’t attract much attention from the national press. Like the abortion measures, this bill was also pushed by Republicans—but here’s the strange part: It was actually a halfway decent idea. The subject of the bill was an important one: tenure for public school teachers. And, while the proposal wasn’t perfect, it was at least an attempt to rectify what is perhaps the least sane element of our country’s approach to education.

The vast majority of states have long granted public school teachers tenure. The way it works is simple: After a certain number of years, teachers qualify—“virtually automatically” in most states, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality—for a form of job protection that makes it extremely difficult to fire them for the rest of their careers.

The system is analogous to the protections that university professors receive—but with one important conceptual difference. Universities are not just educational institutions; they are our country’s idea factories. And so it makes a certain amount of sense that we would want university professors—the people our society relies on to explore ideas, including unpopular ones—to enjoy protections from ideological or intellectual retribution.

But this rationale doesn’t apply at the K–12 level. So what is the case for K–12 teacher tenure? The truth is, there isn’t a good one. One argument typically offered by tenure defenders is that teaching is a notoriously difficult profession in which to measure success. But this is true for lots of jobs—yet, in all other professions, efforts are still made, however imperfect, to evaluate whether an employee is succeeding and to remove those who are not. Why should teaching be different? In fact, given that teaching is arguably the most important job in our society, it would be difficult to name a profession, save maybe the military, for which these sorts of heightened job protections would be less logical. If a job is truly important to the nation’s future, then you want to make sure that the most able, talented people are doing it—and doing their best work at all times.

That goal is simply incompatible with tenure. Indeed, tenure is so illogical that it’s impossible to see why it shouldn’t be abolished. And that is exactly what the Virginia bill sought to do. Predictably, however, Democrats—who remain far too beholden to teachers’ unions—scuttled the measure. As a result, tenure lives on in Virginia for now.

The Virginia measure was not perfect: It allowed teachers to be fired for any reason, which seems unwarranted. Moreover, it must be said that, while Democrats routinely go too far in defending teachers’ unions—on tenure and other issues—one often hears an unsettling undercurrent from conservatives these days when they talk about teaching and public education. There is a fine line between a zeal for firing bad teachers and a zeal for denigrating public education as a whole. And Republicans—whether it’s New Jersey Governor Chris Christie with his slashing of dollars to public schools or Rick Santorum with his recent statement that federal and state governments should “get out of the education business”—have often seemed to be on the wrong side of that line.

For liberals, there is nothing more important than public education. Great public schools are the way a liberal, democratic, capitalist society makes good on the promise of providing genuine opportunities to all. Which is why liberals should steadfastly resist any impediments to improving the quality of education in our country. That means standing up to Republicans when they try to slash funding for schools. It also means opposing ideas from the left that do real damage to the public education system. Teacher tenure is one of those ideas. And it would be nice to hear prominent Democrats, especially President Obama, speak out definitively against it.

This article appeared in the April 5, 2012 issue of the magazine.