Tenuous tenure: Reform advocates gear up for another shot at eliminating the Louisiana law that guarantees educators permanent employment after three years on the job.
It isn’t often that you hear a classroom teacher calling for a speedy end to tenure.
But that’s what Holly Boffy, who won the 2010 Louisiana Teacher of the Year Award while teaching eighth-graders at Paul Breaux Middle School in Lafayette, did last summer when she addressed the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge.
During a question-and-answer session, she was asked for her opinion of the Louisiana law that guarantees educators permanent employment after three years on the job.
“We need to get rid of it as soon as we possibly can,” she replied. “It’s not in the best interest of children.”
Tenure is just one of the topics to be addressed in education reform this year. An effort to end the practice for school bus drivers died without ever leaving the committee in the last legislative session.
But reform advocates are gearing up for battle again in 2012. Speaking before the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry early last week, Gov. Bobby Jindal put the elimination of tenure near the top of his education reform plan.
Jindal says he wants to end “blanket job protection” in the form of tenure to teachers who are ineffective after one year, returning them to probationary status. Under Louisiana’s value-added law, districts would begin dismissal proceedings after two years of ineffectiveness ratings, and teachers would lose certification after three years.
“This is one of the most critical professions we have in Louisiana, and yet we are strangling it by chasing the talent away,” Jindal says. “No matter if you do a good job or a poor job, teach English or music, teach high-poverty or middle-class students, we treat everyone the same. No wonder half of our new teachers are not teaching in our public schools five years after graduating.
“This has to stop. We’re going to run our education system and our economy into the ground unless we reform this backwards structure today.”
Louisiana’s Teacher Tenure Law dates back nearly a century. Act 100 originally became law in 1922, and it was amended and reenacted by Acts 58 and 79 of 1936. The statute defines the status of Louisiana’s public school teachers and outlines the procedures a school board must follow to discharge them.
The law states that all teachers employed by any school board who hold proper certificates and who have served satisfactorily as teachers there for more than three consecutive years are declared to be “permanent teachers.”
Permanent teachers can only be removed for willful neglect of duty, incompetency, dishonesty, a felony conviction involving public morals or being a member of or contributing to any entity barred from operating in Louisiana—and then only after being found guilty in a school board hearing.
Other states are eliminating tenure in an effort to reform public education. In November, the Southern Regional Education Board, which works with southern states to improve public pre-K-12 and higher education, reported that 12 of its 16 member states have made statutory changes to teacher tenure, dismissal or performance pay policies since 2009. Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Oklahoma and Tennessee tied teacher evaluations to tenure decisions.
Florida’s law is by far the toughest. The Student Success Act eliminates the teacher tenure track for new hires and decreases the probationary period from three years to one. Any teacher being rated “unsatisfactory” for two consecutive years, getting more than one “unsatisfactory” evaluation in a three-year period or receiving a combination of “needs improvement” and “unsatisfactory” in a three-year period is terminated.
Only annual contracts are available for new hires, and teachers cannot work under a probationary contract more than once.
Neither the Louisiana Federation of Teachers nor the Louisiana Association of Educators responded to requests for interviews for this story.
LFT President Steve Monaghan previously has argued that teacher tenure is necessary to protect educators from political or personal retribution, and to guarantee their academic freedom to teach “according to the best practices in their fields of expertise.” He insists the tenure process is “a rigorous one,” requiring educators to pass a national exam, earn certification and undergo years of mentoring and evaluation by local administrators.
“Tenure is essential in order for teachers to do their jobs without fear of favoritism or reprisal,” Monaghan told WWL-TV in April 2011. “Talk of abolishing it is foolish and dangerous for teachers and the profession of education.”
Louisiana Association of Educators President Joyce Haynes takes issue with the characterization of tenure as lifelong job security.
“Tenure is not the guarantee of a job for life,” she said in a news release also issued last April, when Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Chas Roemer pushed for abolishing tenure. “Tenure is simply a right to due process and provides job security for teachers who have successfully completed a rigorous and closely monitored process.”
Previous efforts to eliminate tenure have thus far failed. Rep. Steve Carter, a Baton Rouge Republican, unsuccessfully sponsored a bill to revamp tenure last year, and has said publicly he would do so again if necessary.
The battle in the Legislature likely will center on just how far any new tenure rules will go. Will the reforms target those who already have achieved tenure? Or will they simply change the rules for any teachers hired after the law is passed?
BESE President Penny Dastugue says serious tenure reform should be one of the state’s top three priorities for education. But she’d like to see any reforms target more than just incoming educators, since it’s so difficult to dismiss existing teachers.
“It would take so long to reap the benefits of that,” she says. “The majority of teachers in the classroom are not going to be new teachers.”
Boffy—the former teacher of the year who made a splash with her comments about eliminating tenure—is now one of the newly elected members of BESE. Not surprisingly, tenure is one part of her agenda to make sure education “is about the children.”
“It’s a poor paradigm,” she says. “The notion that you have a job for as long as you want it based on nothing else but this short period of time just isn’t helpful. It brings the whole profession down.”
Even so, Boffy recognizes it’s going to be an uphill battle, given the power of the teacher organizations. She thinks any legislation aimed at classroom teachers who already have tenure won’t be successful.
“If our focus on this is about future generations of students and future generations of teachers, we might get a little further,” she says. “I’m hopeful that we can approach this issue in a way that will be very productive.”