After a costly legal fight, a California court recently struck down tenure in the contracts of 300,000 teachers. Opponents are set to appeal, and undoubtedly the battle will spread to other states. In the end, more and more money will be spent in the courtroom instead of where it belongs, in the classroom.
As the only member of the Utah Legislature who currently works as a tenure-track teacher, I feel it would be appropriate to add my voice to the discussion.
Tenure is part of the overall benefit package in the contract I signed with my employer. After a probationary period, I get an up-or-down vote to either remain at the institution with a lifetime appointment or find a job somewhere else. If approved, I am afforded far greater protection than any other state employee. One education expert said it best, "It’s easier to get out of a bad marriage than to get out of a bad tenure decision." It’s possible, but very difficult.
Unfortunately, the tenure discussion has only focused on the inability of schools and universities to eliminate underperformers. What we often forget in that discussion is the even more troublesome problem of inadequately rewarding high performers. If one of my employment benefits is a contractual obligation to not terminate my employment due to poor performance, of what use is that benefit if I am a high performer? I am accepting a salary at a discount in order to receive a benefit that I will never need or use. In many ways, tenure and generous retirement programs have become a way for states to reduce current expenses and replace them with long-term financial obligations. It frees up more money in the present, while adding long-term liabilities to the state’s balance sheet.
It’s an easy political decision. Enjoy the benefit now, and let someone else down the road deal with the problem. But if generous retirement packages and job protection measures such as tenure are eliminated, what incentives will be left to pursue a career in education?
It is true that many of us become teachers for reasons beyond just money. But if we expect our greatest young minds to pursue a career in education just for the warm fuzzies, we will undoubtedly be disappointed when many of them choose other paths.
Yes, man does not live by bread alone, but it sure is difficult to live without it either.
For those who point to the decline in academic freedom that will inevitably result from the elimination of tenure, look no further than higher education. With the spread of adjunct teachers, less than half of all Utah professors are tenured. Do these instructors deserve less academic freedom than their tenured peers? We must create contracts that allow academic freedom for all teachers, not just the tenured elite.
Fellow legislators, when prioritizing educational spending we must begin by increasing teacher pay to reward our very best instructors. I would choose a great teacher with 1850s technology over a poor teacher with state-of-the-art technology any day.
Fellow teachers, it’s time to give up the sacred cow of tenure. We can maintain academic freedom and achieve fair compensation in our new contracts without unfairly protecting low achievers.
Instead of fighting each other and wasting limited resources, we must work together to ensure that every one of Utah’s children receives a world-class education. After all, for a state that prides itself on being ranked the best in the nation, we must never settle for mediocrity on the most important ranking of all.
Jon Cox is a Republican state representative in the Utah Legislature and an instructor of U.S. history at Snow College.
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