A recent weeknight found me among a group of about a dozen unhappy parents meeting with the principal of our kids' high school. The issue: An incompetent teacher who we had been promised would not be returning to the school had shown up unexpectedly, and an administrator had told the students that he might indeed be returning in September.
Parents expressed dismay and frustration. The principal was guarded. There was much he could not say for legal reasons, he explained. In the course of a long and often tense discussion, a number of the parents made the point that if an employee in the private sector had engaged in the behavior that this teacher had, he would be gone in a flash. But when it comes to teachers — those critical figures in our children's lives — it requires a minimum of three years to remove someone ... if you're lucky.
John Stossel, writing in Reason magazine, detailed the case of a New York teacher who sent sexually explicit emails to a 16-year-old student. It took six years and plenty of expensive litigation to fire him, though the school had possession of the emails, and the teacher admitted sending them.
As Stossel observes, faced with the bureaucratic maze they must navigate to fire a bad teacher, most principals don't even try. They attempt to sucker another school into taking the incompetent ("the dance of the lemons") or they put the bad teachers in "pretend work" jobs, where they continue, of course, to collect full salaries and benefits. Between 2005 and 2008, Newsweek reported, the public school systems of Chicago and Akron, Ohio, fired the same percentage of teachers: .01 percent. The Denver and Toledo systems didn't fire any.
Confronting such a Kafkaesque system (Bill Bennett dubbed it "the blob") most parents shrink away feeling deflated and helpless.
Such is union power.
No one mentioned it, but as we were gnashing our teeth about the difficulty of removing bad teachers from the public school system, the Virginia legislature was voting on a measure that would have brought decisive change to our system — the elimination of teacher tenure.
Virginia doesn't call its system of job security "tenure," but after just three years of teaching, a teacher gets a "continuing contract," which amounts to the same thing. By contrast, university professors typically don't get tenure until they've been on the job for seven years. And even then, only a minority gets it. Many college instructors are not tenured faculty.
Do you have life tenure in your job? Unless you are one of the above mentioned professors, a federal judge or a public school teacher, the answer is almost certainly no. So why do teachers have it? Whose interests does it serve other than the teachers'? It permits sloth and incompetence. Can you keep your job without reference to how well you perform it? Tenure insulates teachers from accountability. The unions really put one over on the public. Is it hopeless?
People who want to seem sophisticated affect a jaded view of politicians and political life. If you say that all politicians are crooks and that the difference between Republicans and Democrats is Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, you will get energetic agreement. But here is a case in which electing a Republican governor and a Republican legislature really might have begun to release Virginia's schools from the iron grip of the teachers' unions.
Gov. Robert McDonnell introduced legislation that would have replaced the "continuing contracts" with three-year contracts. At the end of a teacher's contract period, a principal could choose not to renew the contract for any reason, giving principals in Virginia real power to shape their faculties for the first time.
The bill passed the Republican-controlled House of Delegates, but when it reached the Senate, three Republicans joined all 20 Democrats to kill the measure. "This bill does nothing but kick teachers in the teeth," explained Sen. Phillip Puckett, a Democrat. Delegate Richard Bell, a Republican, saw it differently. "If we always do what we've always done," he told the Washington Post, "then we'll always get what we've always gotten."
If the citizens of Virginia had elected just a handful more Republicans, their majority would have been large enough to survive the defections and implement tangible reform. I wonder how many of the parents who were at that meeting — seething about the problem teacher and the clotted system that makes it so hard to get rid of him — voted Democrat.
To find out more about Mona Charen and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.