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In last week’s newsletter, I wrote an extensive review of Senate Bill 361: Excellent Public Schools Act of 2013, a comprehensive education reform bill sponsored by senators Phil Berger, Jerry Tillman, and Dan Soucek.  One of the most controversial parts of the bill is the proposal to eliminate the current tenure (also known as career status) system in favor of multi-year contracts.  In this week’s CommenTerry, I provide some background on the issue.  I’ll address some of the relevant policy issues in a future newsletter.

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First, here is a quick summary of the tenure provisions in the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2013: Teachers employed for fewer than three years would be retained on one-year contracts.  Teachers employed for more than three years would be retained on contracts that range from one to four years.  Ideally, school districts would award four-year contracts to their top-tier teachers and one-year contracts to struggling teachers.  Middling teachers would receive two- or three-year contracts. 

Of course, the public school teacher lobby does not like the bill.  Reasons for their opposition range from "Senator Phil Berger hates teachers" to "Senator Phil Berger wants to destroy public education."  Indeed, reports from left-leaning outfits suggest that Berger has a deep-seeded disdain for public schools and public school teachers.  I suppose that means that Senate Bill 361 is the manifestation of his internal rage — sort of like the legislative equivalent of the Incredible Hulk. Never mind the fact that 1) Berger simply thinks that eliminating tenure is good policy, and 2) he has never been exposed to gamma radiation.

A brief history of tenure in North Carolina

Teachers’ groups and their allies have been talking about tenure policies in North Carolina since the 1930s.  G.B. Phillips, Secretary of the Governor’s Commission on Education, published an article in the January 1939 issue of the High School Journal that outlined the reasons why he believed that North Carolina eventually needed to pass a tenure law.  Phillips wrote,

The Commission recognizes the need for further study of tenure but makes no recommendation for action at this time. It does, however, emphatically disapprove of practices indicating partisan politics, nepotism, and personal favoritism called to its attention as existing here and there in North Carolina. There is evidence of injustice to teachers and a sense of insecurity that in the long run seriously affects the work of the school. Such conditions are an indictment of democracy and a disgrace to any person, group, or school system tainted by their existence. (p. 28)

Indeed, the original purpose of tenure laws was to solve problems prevalent at the time — preferential treatment for employment based on one’s political affiliation, name, or acquaintances.  Favoritism may have been a widespread problem in the 1930s, but I suspect that a tenure law would not have done much to curtail it.

Despite ongoing advocacy for a tenure policy in North Carolina, the state legislature did not pass a tenure law until 1971.  In that year, the NC General Assembly approved the Teacher Tenure Act (aka the Fair Employment and Dismissal Act).  Much like our current law, the Teacher Tenure Act outlined "due process" procedures and grounds for dismissal of a teacher, as well as the requirements for attaining tenure (aka career status).

The General Assembly has amended the tenure statute a number of times since, most notably in 1973, 1983, and 1991.  Changes proposed in 1983 are particularly noteworthy.  In a report to the legislature, the Legislative Research Commission offered several recommendations on ways to improve North Carolina’s teacher tenure law.  Among their recommended legislation was a bill that proposed five-year contracts for career teachers (see Appendix E of the report).  In other words, the idea of offering experienced teachers a multi-year contract is nothing new.  Unfortunately, there was no legislative action on the novel multi-year contract proposal.

Forty-two years after passage of North Carolina’s first teacher tenure bill, Senator Berger is recommending significant changes to the statute. 

Research on administrator and teacher attitudes toward tenure

Admittedly, research on the attitudes of North Carolina administrators and teachers is pretty thin.  In a 1993 doctoral dissertation with the ridiculously long title, "Teacher dismissal: A study of the relationships between tenure requirements, selected school district characteristics, superintendents’ perceptions, and the propensity to involuntarily separate classroom teachers," former North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Ward surveyed thirty school district superintendents to assess their views of classroom teachers.  He concluded that, among other factors, tenure laws forced superintendents to retain poor performing teachers.  Today, you will still find that many school administrators are proponents of tenure reform. They perceive that the tenure law is a barrier to dismissing weak teachers, which is the primary reason for eliminating these laws.

To better understand how North Carolina teachers feel about the changes, I consulted an N.C. State dissertation published in 2011, titled "The Phenomenology of Teacher Tenure in North Carolina:  A Study of Teacher Tenure from the Perspective of Teachers."  Author Michael Putney interviewed 12 tenured North Carolina public school teachers to determine how tenure affected their work.

Putney concluded,

From this study it was found during the analysis of the participant interviews that most of the veteran teachers in this study enjoy teaching. They have a real love for teaching and have always wanted to be teachers. Their commitment, desire, zeal, and drive to ensure that all students get a quality education are what motivate them each day. They do not care so much about tenure and do not feel that they need tenure to teach. While most of them love the security that comes with being tenured, they are strong believers that if they or any teacher in the profession accept the charge of providing students with the best they have to offer and to give 100% to the profession, they will be secure in their positions. (p. 87, emphasis added)

Obviously, his sample is small, but Putney’s qualitative study does provide useful insight into the perception of tenure by veteran teachers in North Carolina.  His findings are consistent with other studies that contend that tenure is not a "make or break" issue for public school teachers.

So, where does this brief survey leave us?  The idea of tenure has been around since the 1930s, but North Carolina’s tenure law has been on the books for only around 40 years.  Proposals to replace tenure with multi-year contracts have been around for decades.  Historically, school superintendents in North Carolina have supported tenure reform.  More importantly, veteran teachers do not necessarily object to the abolition of tenure.

Facts and Stats

Question 31b. Teachers with tenure cannot be dismissed unless a school district follows detailed procedures. Some say that tenure protects teachers from being fired for arbitrary reasons. Others say that it makes it too difficult to replace ineffective teachers. We want to know what you think of tenure. Do you favor or oppose offering tenure to teachers?





African American

























Source: Education Next — PEPG Survey 2012

Education Acronym of the Week

TTA — Teacher Tenure Act

Quote of the Week

"Tenure was originally designed to protect the best teachers from wrongful termination. Today it protects the worst teachers from rightful termination."

– Frank Brogan, the former superintendent and education commissioner of Florida, quoted in Frederick Hess and Martin West, "A Better Bargain:  Overhauling Teacher Collective Bargaining for the 21st Century," Harvard University, Program on Education Policy and Governance, 2007, p. 28.

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