MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Across the country, state lawmakers are calling for major changes in the way teachers are hired and fired. And New Jersey Governor Chris Christie wants to make it a lot easier to fire ineffective teachers by eliminating tenure - though the state's biggest teachers' union says his proposal is both unnecessary and misguided.
NPR's Claudio Sanchez has that story.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Since his election in 2009, Governor Christie has been a relentless critic of tenure for school teachers.
Governor CHRIS CHRISTIE (Republican, New Jersey): Teaching can no longer be the only profession where you have no rewards for excellence, and no consequences for failure.
SANCHEZ: That's Christie delivering his State of the State address last week. Education was a big part of Christie's speech, but he zeroed in on tenure, saying that it had made it almost impossible for schools to get rid of bad teachers. The time to eliminate tenure is now, Christie said. And that has infuriated teachers.
Unidentified Woman: Bad teachers can be let go. I have seen it happen.
Gov. CHRISTIE: Really?
Unidentified Woman: Yes, I have. And I take great offense at your comment.
SANCHEZ: Christie's confrontations with teachers - like this one, at a town hall meeting last fall - are common.
Gov. CHRISTIE: The rules that are set up on tenure to get people - and to get people fired are so onerous - five years of legal fights, hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees...
(Soundbite of cheers and applause)
SANCHEZ: What's lost in these heated exchanges, experts say, is that Christie and teachers who defend tenure are both right.
Elena Silva has researched and written about tenure for the journal Education Sector.
Ms. ELENA SILVA (Senior Policy Analyst, Education Sector): Are there teachers that are grossly negligent or incompetent? Yes. And does tenure protect them? Yes. But that doesn't represent most teachers. And I think that's where the debate and the conversation needs to settle down, I guess.
SANCHEZ: Tenure hearings are actually pretty rare in K-through-12 education. Most teachers who are fired don't challenge their dismissal. Still, the debate over tenure is healthy, as long as people understand what it is and what it's not, says Silva. Tenure is not a lifetime job guarantee.
Ms. SILVA: In K-12, tenure is primarily related to due process.
SANCHEZ: In most school systems, teachers who've been in the classroom less than three years can be fired, and have no right to appeal. Except for Texas, Wisconsin and Mississippi, tenure laws in the other 47 states give teachers who've been teaching more than three years the right to contest their firing. They have the right to legal representation; the right to testify before a hearing, and present witnesses in their defense.
The problem is that this can drag on, sometimes for years. Even union leaders agree: This has to change.
Barbara Keshishian is president of the New Jersey Education Association.
Ms. BARBARA KESHISHIAN (President, New Jersey Education Association): If the process needs to be speeded up, less expensive, then let's address those issues. But you don't throw away a process that otherwise works.
SANCHEZ: Keshishian says her union is working with state legislators to shorten tenure hearings from a year to 90 days or less, which would significantly reduce costs. But Governor Christie has said this does not go far enough.
Keshishian charges that Christie has been portraying the union as intransigent, and protective of incompetent teachers.
Ms. KESHISHIAN: The governor chooses the extreme cases, just a handful of cases, to inflame the debate. He's very good at doing that.
SANCHEZ: The top lawyer for the National Education Association, Alice O'Brien, says it's not in anyone's interest to protect bad teachers. But even they have the right to due process.
Ms. ALICE O'BRIEN (General Counsel, National Education Association): No teacher wants to be put out of the classroom, not told why they're being put out of the classroom, and not given the opportunity to quickly and fairly clear their name.
SANCHEZ: O'Brien says this is why the NEA will fight any effort to eliminate tenure - not just in New Jersey, but in the handful of states where it's likely to be challenged this year: Florida, Louisiana, Illinois, Michigan and Indiana.
Researcher Elena Silva says the debate over tenure is gradually focusing on improving the teacher-evaluation process. Because if tenure laws are backed up by good evaluation policies, she says, that will help talented, effective teachers remain in the classroom.
Ms. SILVA: The problem is that we don't have good ways right now of measuring effectiveness.
SANCHEZ: Until we do, Silva says, there will be conflicting views about the need for tenure, and politicians will continue to call for its elimination.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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