Paying Teachers to Give Up Tenure: What’s the Right Price?

Despite setbacks, proposals to trade money for job protection and ‘freedom’ could be the next front in the education reform fight.

(Photo: Hill Street Studios/Getty Images)

A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Education reformer Michelle Rhee once called teacher tenure the Holy Grail of elementary and secondary school educators. Given how aggressively school reformers attack it and how fiercely teachers’ unions defend it, she might have made an understatement.

From Maine to California, tenure has spurred legislation, lawsuits, ballot initiatives, and intense debates at school district bargaining tables. Both sides want what’s best for kids, but both have powerful interests: Teachers want classroom freedom, protection against subjective evaluations, and higher pay for experience, while reformers want fresh ideas and enthusiasm in the classroom—and bad teachers out of it.

In the latest tenure fight, a California judge last month ruled that the state’s last-hired, first-fired teacher tenure system deprives minority and low-income students of an equal education. Powerful teachers’ unions have vowed to fight the ruling, but education reform activists say they intend to duplicate the challenge in other states, taking tenure reform to a new level.  

Economist Allison Schrager, however, has proposed an alternative view that could help end the fighting: Convince teachers to trade job protection for cold, hard cash.

“If tenure is a benefit, like medical or dental, then it’s worth actual money,” she writes in a Bloomberg Businessweek column posted Sunday. “Taking tenure away is [a] big pay cut. Just how big a pay cut is hard to say. So far no one has offered enough money to persuade teachers to give up tenure.”

Surveys show that public school teachers are among society’s lowest-paid workers; therefore, according to Schrager’s theory, paying them to relinquish tenure is a creative way to provide a financial boost while removing one of the biggest impediments to teacher-reformer cooperation.

The idea has some influential supporters. When she was schools chancellor in Washington, D.C., Rhee presented two compensation models to the teachers’ unions: a merit-based pay ceiling of up to $130,000 if teachers gave up tenure and agreed to a one-year trial period for entry-level teachers, or keep tenure and pay teachers less but put new teachers on a nontenure track. Rhee tried to get the unions to accept the deal, but they passed, and negotiations fell apart. 

In North Carolina, lawmakers proposed giving teachers an 11 percent raise—roughly $5,200 a year for each teacher—if they scrapped tenure. In Race to the Top, President Obama’s $4.35 billion incentive program for improving America’s schools, the Education Department doled out millions to states that overhauled their teacher tenure systems.

The overall results, however, have been mixed: Both Rhee’s proposal and the North Carolina bill crashed and burned, largely on the strength of the opposition of teachers’ unions. Because Race to the Top grant-winning states have four years to make the changes, it’s unclear how many of them have enacted concrete changes to their tenure systems.  

Alan Singer, a Hofstra University education professor and tenure advocate, understands why the system has been so hard to change, despite significant financial incentives. Reformers who think money can solve the problem, he said, aren’t seeing the big picture.

“Teacher tenure is not a lifetime guarantee of employment,” he said. “The absence of teacher tenure puts at risk teachers who are prepared to challenge students,” sometimes in unconventional ways.

Tenure “insures teachers have the ability to do their jobs and not be subject to political pressure,” and educators already have systems in place for removing bad teachers, Singer said. “If there are issues [with a teacher] and people want to have them removed or reprimanded, they have to follow due process.”

Ultimately, Singer said, from the teachers’ point of view, “freedom and money are not equivalent. Freedom should never be exchanged for money.”

But Schrager, the economist, disagrees—tenure and money are inextricably linked. She predicts it’s only a matter of time before the price is right and tenure becomes more or less like company-subsidized life insurance or a 401(k) savings plan.

“Whether or not you think teachers should have guaranteed job security, tenure is undeniably a benefit with significant value,” she writes. “We just haven’t figured out how much it’s worth. And once we do, we can determine if tenure is the best way to pay and attract the best teachers.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.

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