Nobody deserves tenure

Nobody deserves tenure, with the possible exception of
federal judges. University professors don’t deserve tenure; civil servants
don’t deserve tenure; police and firefighters don’t deserve tenure; school
teachers don’t deserve tenure. With the solitary exception noted above—and you
might be able to talk me out of that one, too—nobody has a right to lifetime
employment unrelated either to their on-the-job performance or to their
employer’s continuing need for the skills and attributes of that particular

Tenure didn’t come down from Mt. Sinai or over on the
Mayflower. Though people occasionally refer to its origins in medieval
universities, on these shores, at least, it’s a twentieth-century creation. The
American Association of University Professors (AAUP) began pushing for it
around 1915, but tenuring professors didn’t become the norm on U.S. campuses
until after World War II (when the presumption of a 7-year decision timeframe
also gained traction) and it wasn’t truly formalized until the 1970’s when a
couple of Supreme Court decisions made formalization unavoidable.

In some states, public-school teachers began to gain forms
of job protection that resembled tenure as early as the 1920s, but these
largely went into abeyance during the Great Depression and were not formally
reinstated until states—pressed hard by teacher unions—enacted “tenure laws”
between World War II and about 1980.

The original rationale for tenure at the university-level,
articulately set forth by the AAUP, was to safeguard academic freedom by ensuring
that professors wouldn’t lose their jobs because they wrote or said something
that somebody didn’t like—including, on occasion, donors who paid for their
endowed chairs. This justification gained plausibility during the post-war “Red
Scare” and McCarthy era.

Tenure didn't come down from Mt. Sinai or over on the's a twentieth-century creation. 


The corresponding rationale for school teachers was that
they might lose their jobs for arbitrary and capricious reasons, such as not
doing personal favors for the principals or irking some influential parents or
board members. The civil-service version of tenure had more to do with
establishing a “merit” system and keeping politics and patronage at bay in
government employment. As for federal judges, lifetime tenure is enshrined in
Article III of the Constitution. Hamilton termed it “an excellent barrier to
the despotism of the prince.”

Speaking of the Constitution, however, various job
protections for all manner of public employees, including most teachers and
professors, can also be found in that document. Check out the clauses
protecting individuals from actions by government (at first federal, then also
state) that would “deprive any
person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to
any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The “due process”
concept has authentically ancient roots—a version of it appears in Magna
Carta—and has developed dozens of statutory and courtroom precedents,
protections, and procedures to safeguard individuals from arbitrary dismissal
from their jobs.

Adding “tenure”
on top of that is a bit like wearing both a belt and suspenders.

As for the
alleged kinship between K-12 and higher-ed tenure, two points are noteworthy.
First, on college campuses, it typically takes about seven years to “win”
tenure—and by no means does everyone get it then. University faculties and
administrators go through elaborate procedures to determine which instructors
will be “awarded” tenure. It is in no sense a right. In public education,
however, it’s pretty nearly automatic and usually comes after just two or three
years of employment.

Second, the
proportion of “tenure track” positions in higher education has been steadily declining. NCES data show that, across a
post-secondary teaching-faculty universe of 1.3 million individuals in 2009,
fewer than one in four were tenured and about two-thirds weren’t even employed
in tenure-track positions.

In public
education, on the other hand, essentially everyone with a teaching certificate
is automatically a candidate for tenure as soon as he or she is hired by a
school system. (Only if these instructors are really dreadful in the classroom
or change their minds as to their career do they—maybe—not make it to the second-
or third-consecutive contract that typically yields tenure.)

Federal judges aside,
public-school teachers now appear to be the most heavily tenured segment of the
U.S. workforce.

Which gives rise
to all manner of problems, of which the most conspicuous and offensive, though
maybe not the gravest, is the difficulty of dismissing that relatively tiny
fraction of classroom instructors who are truly incompetent—and the cost, both
in dollars and in pupil achievement, of keeping them on the payroll. (If
they’re in class, the kids suffer. If they’re in “rubber
” or other non-teaching duties, the taxpayers suffer, along with the
reputation of the teaching profession.)

Tenure brings
other troubles, too. Because it is nested within a set of HR practices and
protections that include seniority-based job placements and reductions in
force, tenure contributes to principals’ inability to determine who teaches in
their schools and superintendents’ inability to let the least qualified or
least needed (or most expensive) teachers go during a time of cutbacks. Because
tenure—job security in general—is a valuable employment benefit that
substitutes in part for salary, it tends to hold down teacher pay, which in
turn affects who does and doesn’t seek to enter this line of work and who does
and doesn’t stay there. Because tenure pretty much guarantees one a job
regardless of performance, it reduces teachers’ incentive to see that their
pupils really learn—and their incentive to cooperate in sundry reforms that might
be good for their schools and their students.

No wonder a bunch
of folks, including
the new crop of GOP governors
, want to eliminate or radically overhaul
teacher tenure.

And so they should. To repeat, it didn’t come
down from Mount Sinai—and there are plenty
of other ways to safeguard public employees
from wrongful dismissal besides
guaranteeing them lifetime jobs.

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.