Governors in Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada and New Jersey have called for the elimination or dismantling of tenure. As state legislatures convene this winter, anti-tenure bills are being written in those states and others. Their chances of passing have risen because of crushing state budget deficits that have put teachers’ unions on the defensive.
“It’s practically impossible to remove an underperforming teacher under the system we have now,” said Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, lamenting that his state has the lowest high school graduation rate in the nation.
Eliminating tenure, Mr. Sandoval said, would allow school districts to dismiss teachers based on competence, not seniority, in the event of layoffs.
Politics also play a role.
“These new Republican governors are all trying to outreform one another,” said Michael Petrilli, an education official under President George W. Bush.
In New York City, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has campaigned aggressively for the state to end “last in, first out” protections for teachers. Warning that thousands of young educators face layoffs, Mr. Bloomberg is demanding that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomoscrap the seniority law if the budget he will unveil Tuesday includes state cuts to education.
Teachers’ unions have responded to the assault on the status quo by arguing that all the ire directed at bad teachers distorts the issue.
“Why aren’t governors standing up and saying, ‘In our state, we’ll devise a system where nobody will ever get into a classroom who isn’t competent’?” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association. “Instead they are saying, ‘Let’s make it easy to fire teachers.’ That’s the wrong goal.”
Tenure laws were originally passed — New Jersey was first in 1909 — to protect teachers from being fired because of race, sex, political views or cronyism.
Public-school teachers typically earn tenure after two or three years on probation. Once they receive it, they have a right to due-process hearings before dismissal, which in many districts makes it expensive and time-consuming to fire teachers considered ineffective. Tenure also brings seniority protections in many districts.
In recent years, research on the importance of teacher quality has sparked a movement to evaluate teachers on how well students are learning — with implications that undermine tenure.
The movement gained momentum with the Obama administration’s Race to the Topgrant contest last year. Eleven states enacted laws to link student achievement to teacher evaluations and, in some cases, to pay and job security, according to the American Enterprise Institute.
Now some politicians and policy makers have concluded that if teachers owe their jobs to professional performance, then tenure protections are obsolete.
The former school chancellor of Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee, who campaigned against tenure as early as 2007, has made abolishing it a cornerstone of a new advocacy group, Students First, which has advised the governors of Florida, Nevada and New Jersey.
All are Republicans, but Ms. Rhee, a Democrat, insisted that the movement was bipartisan.
“There’s a willingness to confront these issues that has never before been in play,” she said, noting that some influential Democratic mayors, including Cory A. Booker in Newark and Antonio R. Villaraigosa in Los Angeles, have also called for making it easier to dismiss ineffective teachers.
In a speech in December, Mr. Villaraigosa — who once worked as a teachers union organizer — said, “Tenure and seniority must be reformed or we will be left with only one option: eliminating it entirely.”
The two national teachers’ unions insist that they, too, favor some degree of reform. The American Federation of Teachers endorsed a sweeping law in Colorado last year that lets administrators remove even tenured teachers who are consistently rated as ineffective.