Rushing to defend a recent Time magazine article critical of teacher tenure, several conservative media outlets neglected to discuss what is at the core of a major backlash against the article: due process.
Time's November 3 cover story, titled “The War on Teacher Tenure” and promoted on the cover as “Rotten Apples”, has spurred significant backlash, particularly among teachers. The Huffington Post noted on October 27 that a petition from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) “asking Time to apologize for the cover had reached 72,000 signatures.” In response to the uproar, Time published reactions to its piece from various individuals, including Rep. George Miller (D-CA), AFT President Randi Weingarten and National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen Garcia.
Various conservative media outlets covered the Time controversy by defending the article and cover, attacking teachers unions, and mischaracterizing teacher tenure. The common thread in all of this coverage, however, was a lack of discussion about due process, or why due process policies like tenure exist.
On the October 30 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe, host Joe Scarborough and co-host Mika Brzezinski hosted Time's Nancy Gibbs to discuss the backlash. The segment did not include a discussion or even a mention of tenure or due process, though Scarborough claimed, “It's absolutely silly. There are rotten apples. There are horrible teachers. There are horrible lawyers. There are horrible journalists. There are horrible TV hosts. In every field you can go, there are rotten apples in that field.”
Fox News' Outnumbered on October 27 also neglected to discuss due process during a discussion of the Time piece, though co-host Andrea Tantaros stated that teachers unions are “destroying America” while co-host Jedediah Bila claimed:
BILA: And unfortunately, the reality is, is that a lot of bad teachers stay. They have tenure.& You cannot get rid of them. They want no accountability, and they are bringing schools down in every city across this country.
Online media outlets similarly failed to discuss the issue at the heart of the Time backlash, and instead took to attacking those who questioned the article, or misleading about tenure. The Daily Caller wrote that "'nearly impossible' is an apt term for teacher firings in many states." Hot Air ran a piece titled, “Time magazine actually questions teacher tenure. Is immediately attacked,” and claimed that “outside the fantasy land of the public workers unions, jobs are never assured for life.” The Weekly Standard's blog took the attacks on tenure even further under the headline, “Time Magazine is Attacked for Telling the Truth About Teachers Unions”:
Firing teachers is such a problem there's even a term of art, “the dance of the lemons,” that refers to how bad teachers are shuffled from one school to the next as parents get wise to their professional shortcomings.
So yes, it's still nearly impossible to fire teachers.
As Weingarten and Garcia wrote in their responses to Time, much of the fervent reaction to the controversial piece centered on the right to due process. Weingarten stated that “Tenure is not a job for life. It's ensuring fairness and due process before someone can be fired, plain and simple.” Garcia wrote that "[d]ue process policies like tenure exist in almost every state" and that the purpose of tenure is “to protect good teachers from being fired for bad reasons.”
Indeed, as education scholar and historian Diane Ravitch pointed out in The New York Times, “unlike tenure in higher education, public school tenure is not a guarantee of a lifetime job.” She continued:
In elementary and secondary education, tenure is a guarantee that a teacher can be fired only for just cause, with due process.
In states with tenure, teachers must work satisfactorily for a period of time before they are eligible for tenure. In California, it was 18 months -- or two school years. In most other states, it is three or four years. Only then may the principal decide whether to grant tenure. A teacher with tenure is entitled to a hearing before he or she may be fired, and evidence of misconduct must be presented before an independent hearing officer.
Tenure protects academic freedom. In the absence of tenure, teachers may be fired for any reason. Teachers may be fired if the principal doesn't like them or if they are experienced and become too expensive. Teachers may be fired for being outspoken.
Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute made a similar observation in a June 24 blog post when he stated that “teacher tenure in the K-12 context does not mean a lifetime guarantee of a job. It means that teachers have basic rights -- most importantly, the right to due process if the district wants to fire them,” continuing:
The distinction is critical, both because eliminating tenure does not necessarily make it easier to fire bad teachers, and because tenure can actually help attract good teachers to hard-to-staff schools, retain them, and support their role as voices for student justice in those schools.
Education Opportunity Network Director Jeff Bryant also argued in Salon that rights like tenure and due process are important for “the really huge problem many schools have with teacher retention.” Bryant cited a New York Daily News op-ed by the dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law, Erwin Chemerinsky, in which Chemerinsky wrote, “Getting rid of tenure and due process will not encourage more teachers to stay in the profession. It will drive them out and discourage other qualified people from entering the profession in the first place.”
Perhaps we could have a more substantive conversation about teaching, tenure, and due process if conservative media were at least willing to discuss what's at the heart of this controversy.