Opinion: Blaming Tenure May Be Free But it's a Cheap Shot

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The big buzz in education circles is the recent decision in California by Judge Treu eviscerating tenure for teachers on the grounds that it is discriminatory for poor and underprivileged students.

It got me thinking about what else the esteemed judge could have struck down.

For example, he might have decreed that since poverty is the single greatest detriment to a student’s educational achievement, the wealthy would have to shell out new tax dollars to even the score. He also could have ruled that poor students would receive free healthcare and increased SNAP benefits to ensure they are well and well fed enough to take full advantage of the educational opportunities afforded them.

But Treu didn’t do any of those things to  improve the lot of children in California. He struck down teacher tenure. Why was tenure singled out when so many other societal factors weigh so much more heavily on educational outcomes for impoverished students?

The highly varnished version from the group Students Matter is that nine students, none of whom look older than 14, decided on their own that tenure was the bane of teaching, and battled those nasty teachers’ unions to secure their right to a fair education. The truth is that these kids appear to be pawns in an attempt by millionaire David Welch, founder of Student Matters, to snatch away the Holy Grail of education reform: teacher tenure.

Tenure is widely misunderstood. It is a right that teachers earn, and that is conferred upon us after a lengthy period of at-will employment. Once earned, tenure is difficult, though hardly as impossible as reformers like Welch would have it, to revoke. It does not guarantee teachers lifetime employment; it confers the right to a hearing before termination.

It ensures that teachers cannot be terminated for capricious reasons, for teaching controversial material, or for the sin of climbing up the salary scale and making too much money.

That last reason is, in reality, where David Welch and other wealthy education reformers come in.

Their purpose is to weaken teachers’ unions, perhaps the strongest remaining bastions of vibrant unionism still standing. If the wealthy reformers can accomplish that, then the earnings floor is snatched away from all workers. The rich will get richer, and the ordinary laborer will compete for whatever crumbs are left.

If you doubt this, ask yourself what the real upshot will be if tenure is eliminated. Effective senior teachers will be jettisoned in favor of lower paid temporary replacements. Teachers who stand up for students’ rights will be shown the door, and those who fight for academic freedom will be labeled troublemakers and fired. Teaching will become an even lower paying profession than it is now, driving our best and brightest college minds into other, more lucrative fields.

Those nine students and others like them won’t be miraculously cured of the societal ills that plague the disadvantaged and keep them from a quality education. Rather, they will be taught by underpaid, disgruntled temporary employees who will teach them that Jesus tamed the West while riding a dinosaur, if that’s what the state mandates and what will keep them their jobs.

By all means, we should attack the societal ills that prevent young people from attaining the education they deserve. But this salvo against tenure will not feed a single hungry child, nor level the playing field for the poorest of our kids.

Blaming teachers may be free but for the wealthy reformers it also could be immensely profitable.