Last week, the California Supreme Court ruled in Vergara v. California ruled that teacher tenure in the K-12 school system is unconstitutional. In his ruling, Judge Rolf Treu opined that the statutes of teacher tenure disproportionately affects the poor and disadvantaged. Unsurprisingly, the pending decision is being challenged by the California Teachers Association. What makes the California law interesting is that it grants tenure after less than three years, which, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, is too soon to determine teacher effectiveness because it takes some time for teachers to get acclimated. I don't think it's a matter of simply asking whether teacher tenure has gone too far, but whether it is necessary and whether it works.
Proponents of teacher tenure will kvetch about a "war on teachers" or how eliminating teacher tenure only weakens labor without increasing the quality of education. Sorry to say this, but teacher tenure does nothing of the kind.
Historically speaking, teacher tenure was implemented to prevent the arbitrary firing of teachers. Even if there were legitimate needs during its inception in the early twentieth century, the problem with invoking is that it is the year 2014, and I couldn't care less. Teacher tenure predates modern-day hiring practices and laws against discrimination. Public policy is about how a policy is implemented, not how it was intended to be. The primary purpose of K-12 teacher tenure is to protect inept teachers from getting fired. You'd be amazed at the loops one has to jump it is to get rid of an incompetent, tenured teacher. If the worry is that a teacher will get fired for expressing an alternative opinion or try out an innovative form of pedagogy, you have to remember that there are all kinds of worker protections that already exist: anti-discrimination laws, collective bargaining, and a myriad of other legal protections. At least in the collegiate world, a teacher has to conduct stellar research and be at least somewhat liked by their students to receive tenure. K-12 teachers receive it simply for teaching for so many years.
And don't give me the business of "having a right to a job." Especially since we are talking about the education of future generations, we should be ever-so scrupulous about maintaining quality assurance. Much like any other profession, if you conduct yourself in an incompetent manner, the employer should have every right to kick you to the curb.
Even if you don't like an unfettered free market, France is a good reminder that an excess of labor regulations create enough rigidities that greatly diminish effectiveness. The more rigid the labor market, the riskier it is to hire an employee. You don't want to discourage hiring, especially when it is a profession that is so essential to the development of human capital. Additionally, tenure does not give school districts fiscal flexibility in the event that budget cuts are required. Take a look at the Chicago Public School system as an example, and you'll see that the biggest obstacle to financial solvency is the teacher pension system, i.e., a labor rigidity.
In his ruling, Treu points out that approximately 1-3 percent of teachers are just lousy, that would mean 2500-8000 teachers in the state of California should be dismissed from their job. If it costs $250-450K to dismiss an incompetent teacher, not only does it cost taxpayer dollars, but it's amazing the difference of economic value for good teachers versus mediocre teachers (Chetty et al., 2013). Even the Center for American Progress, a Left-leaning think-tank, thinks that teacher tenure is an anachronistic policy that has outlived its usefulness and has its economic drawbacks.
Last-in, first-out (LIFO) only encourages retaining teachers solely based on years worked. Teachers should be evaluated and maintain their employment based on their merit, not on the length of their employment, because the value of a good teacher can't be emphasized enough. Value-added modeling would be a good start (Winters, 2012). However, the public education system is dysfunctional enough where policy reform will need to be multi-faceted. Just because we provide access to a market doesn't mean quality is ensured. Incentivizing career advancement, school vouchers, restructuring the reward system, reforming the back-loaded pension system, finding a way to improve upon the ever-important involvement of parents, these all would be ways to improve upon public, K-12 education. By liberalizing the education marketplace, we can help children receive the high-quality education they deserve.