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Today’s sprawling job protections — which are now being hashed out in courtrooms — have deep roots in a rule-free era.
In 1918, San Diego’s public schoolteachers had no union and no job security. With no protections to keep them on the payroll, 18 teachers got sacked when the local school board went rogue in its bid to oust German sympathizers.
Fast-forward to 1986 and a high school in El Cajon, where officials put together 400 reasons why a notorious English teacher deserved to be fired. It took eight years and $312,000 in taxpayer-funded legal fees. Why? Because she had a union behind her, and she had job security.
In a matter of decades, California’s teachers went from nothing to everything on the job protection front. But as they gained the world, they lost the faith of parents, taxpayers and administrators who claim the system protects the incompetent.
“School districts that want to dismiss an ineffective or even dangerous educator face a dizzying legal web that can cost hundreds of thousands to navigate,” Voice of San Diego’s Mario Koran explained earlier this year. “Even then, efforts to send a teacher packing might not work.”
Now, teacher tenure is in jeopardy as a court case threatens to knock back the rights of teachers in favor of the rights of students. Still, the tenure system in the San Diego Unified school district remains firmly entrenched despite efforts at reform.
Here are five things to know about the history of teacher tenure in the U.S., the Golden State and San Diego.
When San Diego school board members went on a rampage against stubborn local teachers in 1918, only voters could — and eventually did — stop them. Tenure protections had existed in other parts of the country for years, but not here.
“In those days San Diego teachers enjoyed no job security. They were appointed annually, often obtaining their jobs through the influence of a friend of the superintendent or a Board member. Their positions, therefore, were often susceptible to the whim of these same influential persons,” writes historian Robert F. Heilbron in a 1974 issue of The Journal of San Diego History. “Teacher tenure existed in some cities, but it did not exist and was little discussed in San Diego. Although there were teacher organizations elsewhere, there was none in San Diego, nor any plans for one.”
So teachers felt intimidated when the school board demanded they fill out questionnaires that smacked of a loyalty oath and came with a promise that teachers could be fired “with all possible kindness, but without flinching.”
Teachers resisted the questionnaire, and a local museum director recommended that year-long contracts be eliminated in favor of a tenure system. But the school board ignored the idea and sacked 18 teachers, hinting that some were under surveillance as possible German sympathizers — a devastating charge during World War I.
A massive strike by San Diego students and public outcry led voters to take advantage of a newfound power: the recall. They booted the board members later in 1918.
“By this time the San Diego Teachers’ Association had come into being and before the end of the first semester its membership included more than 90 percent of the whole teaching staff,” Heilbron writes. “Teacher tenure had not arrived, but it was soon to be a fact. By every measure the status of teachers in San Diego had undergone a dramatic improvement.”
“The origins of teacher tenure came in the women’s suffrage movement,” said Sigrid Bathen, a journalism professor at Cal State Sacramento who’s written about the history of tenure. “Most teachers were women, and they were subjected to some really stringent rules.”
Indeed, there were rules preventing women teachers from showing their ankles, dating or getting married. “They were regarded as chattel,” Bathen said.
In response to rules like these and frequent lower pay for women teachers, advocates linked teacher rights such as tenure to women’s rights overall. In a 1912 book of commentaries about women’s suffrage, a writer notes that female teachers typically got less pay then men but adds that a law in Utah mandated equal pay after women got the vote in that state. Another writer praises a female teachers union leader in Chicago who created partnerships with unions dominated by men (unlike the teaching profession) and pushed for equal pay and teacher tenure.
Despite the growth in tenure protections for teachers in the 20th century, women educators still faced unfair rules. Bathen interviewed a teacher who worked in Phoenix in the 1940s and had to keep her marriage to another teacher secret in order to keep her job. Her husband eventually became California’s state superintendent of schools.
Men faced their own challenges. In one case from 1963, Bathen wrote, a Pasadena teacher was reassigned “for refusing to shave a beard he’d grown over the summer. Eventually vindicated by an appeals court, he was asked in a lower court hearing if his beard was ‘an outgrowth’ of his ‘radicalism,’ and he replied that it was ‘an outgrowth of my six-week fishing trip.'”
Back when California approved teacher tenure in 1921, it granted permanent status to teachers after two years, meaning they couldn’t be sacked for no reason. Layoffs are allowed, but they must be based on seniority.
It’s not clear why California went with a two-year period in 1921 instead of a higher number of years, although the standard at that time for states with tenure laws was to give teachers two to three years to prove themselves.
Now, California’s two-year period is on the low side nationally. Several states, including New Jersey and Illinois, require a probation period of four years before tenure is granted; many other states require three years, although several states are trying to eliminate teacher tenure protections or don’t have it in the first place.
The state currently allows teachers to be fired for a variety of reasons, including immorality, misconduct and incompetence. That’s not all: Teachers can be fired for advocating to overthrow of the government and being a member of the Communist Party, although that last rule might be unconstitutional.
The rules are one thing. The system is another. Tenure protections “evolved with the strength and political clout of teachers unions,” Bathen said. “But it’s evolved into a complicated and cumbersome process.”
And it’s been that way for quite a while now, going back at least to the 1980s in the San Diego area. As the L.A. Times explained in a 1995 story, it took eight years and a two-week court case with 44 witnesses and 85 exhibits for a principal to finally force out a teacher accused of incompetence.
According to the Education Commission of the States, 10 states don’t have tenure and others have limited it over time. States like Louisiana and New Jersey are debating limits on tenure now. The legal team that won the initial Vergara ruling challenging tenure in California is planning to expand their challenge to other states.
You might assume critics of teacher tenure first began raising the alarm about incompetent teachers in recent decades. But that’s not the case. A New York Times headline from 1917 tells the tale: “Asks for Removal of Unfit Teachers/President of Education Board Says They Hide Behind ‘Permanent Tenure’/Schools Are Burdened.”
The Big Apple would later become infamous for its “rubber rooms” that housed teachers accused of misconduct or incompetence as they waited endlessly for someone to figure out what to do with them. Tenure rules require them to be paid, the New Yorker reported, but nobody wanted them near kids. So there they sat.