Ever Try To Flunk A Bad Teacher?

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When students in Clementine Johnson's typing class began throwing books and dismantling typewriters six years ago, she didn't send anyone to detention. Instead she gleefully tossed back. Then, according to the Florida Times-Union, after the principal called her class unruly, she wrote a loopy letter describing the "living flesh on my true hereditary genes bones." Finally she changed her surname to God.

The decision to fire Johnson--sorry, "Ms. God"--may seem like a no-brainer. But in fact she stayed on the job another year, presumably enlivening class but probably not serving Florida's future terribly well. How did she stay so long? She chose the right career: rigid work rules and languorous appeals procedures make teaching a profession from which it is almost impossible to be fired. Which isn't to demean the millions of teachers who work hard for sweatshop wages. But when, for example, only .02% of Florida teachers were dismissed for incompetence last year, you know there's a problem.

Why does it take so long to fire bad teachers? Each state is different, but most award educators lifetime job protection after just three years on the job. Tenure gives teachers faced with termination a host of stalling tactics--principals seeking to dismiss them must usually file several written reports, wait a year for improvement, file additional poor evaluations, appear at a hearing and perhaps even show up in court to defend the firing. In the meantime, the teacher still gets paid, as does a substitute. And of course the district must spend thousands to pay the lawyers. Not surprisingly, very few teachers are ever fired: just 44 of Illinois' 100,000 tenured public school teachers were dismissed between 1991 and 1997, according to the president of the Illinois Education Association.

In itself, tenure isn't an awful idea. Most judges and university professors have it. Its noble purpose is to protect teachers from being fired unjustly because, say, they won't teach creationism. And teacher unions point out that tenure confers basic due process.

Nonetheless, in the past few years several states have streamlined their firing procedures, and some have ended tenure altogether. Next year, for instance, Florida will cut to 90 days the time a teacher has to show improvement before a dismissal hearing. New York now requires most of these hearings to last less than 60 days. In 1995 South Dakota repealed its tenure laws, so teachers can be fired for just cause.

Every time a new horror story appears describing a teaching debacle--a Connecticut teacher helped her students cheat on the state's basic skills test but ended up with only a 30-day suspension--the pressure on states to change tenure laws grows. And the movement gained support last month when Democratic Senator John Kerry joined his G.O.P. colleague Al D'Amato in calling to "end teacher tenure as we know it." That's too late to help Ms. God's students, but not their younger siblings.