Thursday, Sept. 23, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Tenure for teachers is usually seen as either a protection for educators from capricious school administrators or a way for incompetent teachers to protect their jobs.
Top politicians now appear to be leaning toward the latter view.
Top Republican and Democratic politicians are calling for the end of tenure, the latest this week by Assembly Majority Leader John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas.
That Oceguera, who is in line to be the next Assembly speaker and one of the most powerful men in Nevada next session, would call for what has long been a conservative position reflects how far the debate over how to improve schools has shifted in the past two years.
Democrats, from President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have run up against teacher unions, a traditional base for the Democratic Party.
Last session, Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, clashed with the state teachers union over his ultimately unsuccessful education reforms.
But to take on tenure, one of the most cherished rights of teachers, seems to be a new front.
At its core is a sense that teachers, once they get tenure, are difficult if not impossible to fire.
In Nevada, the “probationary” period when teachers can be fired at will is two years. But teachers who get satisfactory evaluations in the first year can have their second year of probation waived.
The Clark County School District was not able to provide data on the number of tenured teachers fired for poor performance by deadline.
But the Clark County Education Association, which represents teachers in the Clark County School District, said 20 teachers did not have their contracts renewed two years ago for reasons that would include poor performance. Last year 19 teachers did not have their contracts renewed.
There are roughly 17,000 teachers in Clark County.
Oceguera said in an interview on “Nevada Newsmakers” this week that he wanted to end tenure as a way to improve the state’s dismal education system.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Sandoval also called for an end to tenure when he released his education plan this year.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rory Reid has stopped short of calling for an end to tenure, but his education plan calls for making it tougher for teachers to get tenure and to “make it easier to get rid of bad teachers.”
Oceguera, in a statement, said, “We have great teachers in our state, but we hear from parents and principals that there are those who are not measuring up and should not be in the classroom.”
He called for a “fair but expedient process for getting inadequate teachers out of the classroom.”
Sandoval, in an interview, said he would have teachers evaluated based on test scores, a principal’s review, possibly a peer review and other factors. A principal would then make a recommendation to the school district, which would make the decision on whether to fire a teacher.
He said the evaluation would be used to give merit pay to good teachers, help some teachers improve their skills and get rid of bad teachers.
“I’ve spoken to several principals, who said it’s an incredibly difficult process to get poorly performing teachers out of the classroom,” he said.
Teachers and some education experts say this is part of a pattern of attacks on the profession.
“I feel we are underappreciated and under attack,” said Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association.
He defended the current process. “We try to protect (teachers’) due process rights,” he said. “Every teacher should be given an opportunity to make improvements, to have the support necessary to make them successful.”
He wondered if Oceguera, a deputy fire chief for North Las Vegas, would support eliminating seniority and tenure for firefighters.
Diane Ravitch, an education policy expert and author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,” said teachers are under assault, led by Education Secretary Duncan and the federal Race to the Top grant program, which, in part, required states to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores.
“There is a mean-spirited hostility towards teachers in the air,” she told the Sun. She said tenure has been used to prevent cronyism from infecting school hiring and firing decisions.
“The reason for due process is that in the past, before teachers got such rights, they were dismissed for all sorts of meretricious reasons,” she said, “because of their race, their religion” or to hire a local board member’s relative.
But she also said in most states, tenure is granted for new teachers, at principals’ discretion, after three or four years.