Summer Break

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POLITICS AUGUST 22, 2005

Summer Break

Sunny days grow (slightly) shorter. Beach umbrellas along the Pacific coast collapse and vanish. Notebooks, pens, and backpacks overflow the aisles of local stores. This can mean only one thing: It's back-to-school time for California's public school students. But for the California Teachers Association (CTA), the largest state educators' union in the country, summer break never even got started. Last June, just as the school year was winding down, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called for a special election to be held in November. Among the ballot measures were two initiatives that raised the hackles of state teachers. One would put in place spending caps that could limit school funding. The other, Proposition 74, would require teachers to serve five years, instead of the current two, before earning tenure.

In their battle over spending caps the teachers are aligned with several powerful allies--including the union collective Alliance for a Better California and the California Democratic Party. Pollsters at the Mellman Group have already predicted the proposition's failure at the polls. But the fight to hold on to two-year tenure is all the teachers' own. So far, the CTA has launched a massive television and radio ad campaign, vaguely exhorting Schwarzenegger to "keep [his] promises to our schools and our kids" while tiptoeing around the specifics of the propositions. The ads have been extremely costly. Last week, the CTA refinanced its stately headquarters outside of San Francisco to front the $54 million tab. (Members will put up $180 each in additional dues over the next three years to pay off the new mortgage.) The ads have also, apparently, been extremely futile. New polls indicate that over 60 percent of likely voters in California plan on approving the measure to lengthen pre-tenure probation.

Teachers and union officials have crafted a litany of defenses of two-year tenure. "Teachers discuss controversial subjects, and need some protection against being fired based on a few complaints, or an arbitrary act by a principal," California Federation of Teachers President Mary Bergan said in a statement last spring. Delaying tenure "will discourage young people from entering the teaching profession at this critical time," asserts a letter signed by CTA President Barbara Kerr. "This initiative is unnecessary. There is already a system in place to fire teachers who are not performing in the classroom," reads a CTA press release. These claims are nonsense. But the teachers are right about one thing: Proposition 74 won't reform California's public schools.

California's current K-12 teacher tenure system is hardly unusual. In fact, most states have similar requirements, mandating that school principals evaluate neophyte teachers on a yearly basis until tenure is granted. (California teachers are said, ominously, to have "permanent" status at that point.) Occasional appraisals of their performance must be filed in subsequent years, but firing teachers based on poor instruction can be nearly impossible. For one, they usually have to receive more than one unsatisfactory evaluation, which can take several years. And, as the Los Angeles Times recently pointed out, "state law does not define unsatisfactory performance." It's left to the discretion of school administrators. Secondly, understaffed school districts often make valiant efforts at reforming bad teachers. Counseling is offered; advice on pedagogy and behavior dispensed. "The term 'tenure' is really lopsided here," says Paul LePore, an assistant dean of educational programs at the University of Washington. "It's job security, but administrators can't provide the kind of thorough and critical peer evaluations that exist in higher education."

It's difficult to fire tenured teachers. But rooting out bad teaching involves more than handing out pink slips. "Accountability is essential," says Jonna Perillo, who teaches English education at the University of Texas, El Paso. "But tenure may be standing in for a host of anxieties." And teaching standards may be chief among them. Under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)--a law which has made a great show of getting tough on unqualified instructors--states must ensure that their teachers are competent in the subjects they teach by the end of the 2005-2006 school year. Competence, according to NCLB, is a funny thing--it may come in the form of a bachelor's degree or a test or simply classroom experience. It is, in short, subjective by law. Not surprisingly, states have turned up rosy results: According to the AP, most already say that over 90 percent of their teachers are "highly qualified."

Like NCLB, Proposition 74, which Schwarzenegger has dubbed the "Put the Kids First Act" (and which the CTA has counter-dubbed the "Punish New Teachers" Initiative), is a lazy piece of policy. It allocates no funding for school administrators to put towards determining teacher quality. It neglects factors--supplies, facilities, safety, drop-out rates--that are not directly related to classroom interaction. And, perhaps worst of all, it mindlessly reproduces the same muddled list of fireable offences that have been on the books in California for decades. A note to Governor Schwarzenegger's staff: Now may have been the perfect opportunity to remove "membership ... in the Communist Party" as a cause for dismissal in the education code.

Proposition 74 does distinguish itself in at least one way: Not since Bob Dole promised to "disregard [their] political power" at the 1996 Republican Convention has anyone stared down the all-powerful teachers' unions. Solid public support for the initiative hints that the CTA may be in for a major blow at the ballot box--with a $54 million price tag. But in order for teacher tenure reform to succeed, California needs to back up high and clearly defined standards with ample funding. Proposition 74 ventriloquizes education reformers without enacting meaningful changes. For that, it gets a failing grade.

Keelin McDonell is a writer for The New Republic.

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