Teacher Tenure Under Fire As Education Reform Reviewed

Teacher tenure in public school education has come under fire as legislators face pressure to slash budgets and reform education. This form of teacher job security has been named by some officials as one of the biggest obstacles to improving schools. Host Michel Martin speaks with former teachers' unionist and now Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa about his plans to deal with teacher tenure in his city's troubled school district.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

The Barbershop guys will be here in a few minutes with plenty to talk about, including the quick fallout over a self-portrait.

But, first, we want to talk about tenure for teachers, specifically public school teachers. Now, that's a form of job security that many associate with college teaching. It's intended to protect them from reprisal for, say, undertaking politically unpopular academic work. But it turns out that many teachers in school systems around the country also enjoy tenure.

But as many states in localities face severe budget pressures and the federal government presses for changes, some officials are starting to question whether policies that protect the jobs of more experienced teachers are really in the best interest of students.

Now, later in the program we're going to speak with Randi Weingarten. She's the head of the American Federation of Teachers. She'll give her perspective on this.

But, first, we're joined by Antonio Villaraigosa. He is the mayor of Los Angeles. It's home to one of the most troubled school districts and one of the largest. And California's schools consistently rank in the bottom third among states and one of every four students drops out. And the mayor has been in office for five years and he's made reforming L.A.'s public schools one of his top priorities. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: Well, thank you, Michel, for having me on your show.

MARTIN: Now, I want to mention, before we start our conversation, that you actually worked as an organizer for the teachers unions for almost 15 years, both as an organizer for the United Teachers Los Angeles and as a legislative advocate for the California Teachers Union. So you do have that background. This is before you went into politics.

You recently made a speech to the Public Policy Institute of California about education reform. You said then that a major roadblock to improving the schools is teacher tenure. Could you tell us more?

VILLARAIGOSA: I spent a good part of my life in the labor movement, and I actually started out in the civil rights movement alongside of Cesar Chavez and the farm workers. I am passionately in support of collective bargaining. But I do believe that there are some principles in the labor movement, and particularly speaking about education right now, it's just antiquated. And reform cries out for change.

The issue of seniority and tenure - teachers and unions and principals are assigned, transferred and laid off strictly on seniority. There's something missing there. You got to have performance as a driver in the decisions we make about our children.

MARTIN: You're not the only person to sound this cry. Michelle Rhee, the former D.C. public school chancellor, now heads a national organization called Students First. And she's made this issue one of her priorities. I'll just play a short clip from a conversation that we had with her in December. And here it is.

MICHELLE RHEE: The problem that we face in public education today is that essentially tenure for teachers means that you have a job for life regardless of performance and that is an adults first policy, not a students first policy.

MARTIN: Do you agree with her? Do you think that that's true?

VILLARAIGOSA: I think it's very true. We're not the only people who are questioning this issue. All around the country: Mayor Bloomberg in New York, Mayor Daley in Chicago; mayors and leaders who are reforming our schools and saying, let's work together to address this issue. Some have said, let's completely eliminate it. Others have said, let's work together to find a middle ground, particularly in low-performing schools who often get the least senior teachers, the least qualified teachers. Those kids have every right to have a qualified, effective teacher.

MARTIN: Well, what would that middle ground look like, Mr. Mayor?

VILLARAIGOSA: The middle ground would say that performance has to be a factor. I believe it to be the driving factor. But right now, seniority with respect to hiring, assignments, transfers and layoffs is the only factor. And so performance is not taken into account at all. It's just not a part of the equation.

MARTIN: I mean, in the college level, tenure was designed to protect people so that they could do work that would not be affected by kind of the political winds. How is that relevant on the elementary and secondary level? Why have tenure at all?

VILLARAIGOSA: Or at the high school level, middle school level.

MARTIN: Or at the high school level. Right.

VILLARAIGOSA: The fact is it's not relevant. It's an antiquated system.

MARTIN: Well, we'll hear from Randi Weingarten in a minute and she can make the other case. But my guess is that she will say that one argument in favor of teacher tenure is that it allows people a fair opportunity to stand up for themselves, which is something that I think you would recognize as a former union rep. And so for those who say that, you know, if you do away with teacher tenure, this just offers an opportunity for people to bring in arbitrary means of getting rid of people or in a time of budget stress, to get rid of the people who happen to be the highest paid, what would you say to that?

VILLARAIGOSA: Reform it. Amend it. Or over time, there will be the political will to end it. The fact is, people more and more are asking the question, what kind of system is successful that doesn't take into account performance at all? It's all driven by seniority. That system just doesn't work. And, again, I'm a progressive, I'm pro-union, but I believe this issue of education is the democracy issue of our time, the economic issue of our time and the civil rights issue of our time when you look at the achievement gap.

And you look at the fact that in urban schools, you have a 50 percent dropout rate. And 80 percent of the kids are scoring at the bottom 20 percentile. We should be working together. I have a lot of respect for Randi Weingarten and I believe that she is one of the more progressive teacher union leaders. I know her very well. And I can tell you, we can work this out.

Teachers and parents and communities need to come together to be innovative, to try new things. To look at the areas that are impediments to educational excellence and to work together to redress those impediments to remove them.

MARTIN: Antonio Villaraigosa is the mayor of Los Angeles, California. He was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to join us on the phone. Thank you, Mr. Mayor, for joining us.

VILLARAIGOSA: Thank you, Michel.

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