I’ve always respected Mona Charen.  Her writing is lively and rational, and I’ve long considered her book—Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim To Help (And The Rest Of Us!)—one of my favorites.  It is therefore with some reluctance that I must take one of her recent columns at National Review—Democrats and Teacher Tenure—to task.

Charen recounts her frustrating and unsuccessful effort, in concert with other parents, to cause their high school to remove an obviously incompetent teacher.  Because of my knowledge of Charen and her character as revealed through her writing, I have no difficulty accepting the proposition that the unnamed teacher about which she writes was in fact incompetent and should have been fired.  She writes:

. . .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 e-mails 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 e-mails, 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 system of Chicago fired 0.1 percent and Akron, Ohio fired none at all. The Denver and Toledo systems didn’t fire any, either.

So far so good.  I’m all for actual—as opposed to bureaucratic—accountability.  In other words, I expect to be well prepared and competent in my work each and every day, and expect others to be equally well prepared and competent.  I’ve seen too many teachers phoning it in and getting away with it.  But here’s where Charen goes wrong:

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 get 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?

Indeed it is, but only if one misidentifies the actual problem.  Charen goes on to blame the problem on Democrats who—and this is certainly not an unreasonable observation—reflexively support any legislation unions favor.  Charen goes on:

Governor 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.

Keep in mind that the three states in which I have taught high school and college were right to work states; unions had no collective bargaining power.  No one could be forced to be a union member, nor could unions forcibly take dues from anyone.  No school district had to recognize any union, nor did they have to enter into any agreement with them.  This, gentle readers, is the way it should be.  Even AFL-CIO President George Meany, writing in 1955, agreed with me:

 . . .The main function of American trade unions is collective bargaining. It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government. Unions, as well as employers, would vastly prefer to have even Government regulation of labor-management relations reduced to a minimum consistent with the protection of the public welfare…

If individuals voluntarily choose to join unions and private industry chooses to enter into collective bargaining agreements, as long as there is no governmental involvement, that’s fine too.  But no one, through force of law, should be required to join a union, or to recognize or bargain with one.

The difference is that in the public sector, unwise financial choices, such as granting unions unsustainable wages, benefits and pensions, should cause a company to become uncompetitive in the free marketplace.  In these circumstances, they should have the option of going bankrupt, or of shedding unsustainable costs.  Unfortunately, government is all too often involved—particularly Democrats—as when Mr. Obama seized control of 2/3 of America’s auto industry for the benefit of the United Auto Workers, while cheating shareholders out of their lawful compensation, throwing away billions in subsidies, and ensuring that the wages, benefits, work rules and pensions that doomed the industry would not be reformed.  In essence, as with so much else, Mr. Obama merely kicked the can down the road and the same problems that lead to GM and Chrysler’s financial crisis will reoccur in the future.

Public sector unions, such as those representing teachers, firefighters, police officers and other government employees are always, by definition, working against the interests of the taxpayer, not only in theory, but in practice.  When a union sits down at the table, they are bargaining with politicians and/or bureaucrats who have the power to award the union taxpayer money.  These politicians and bureaucrats know that money awarded to the union will be returned to them in the form of campaign contributions which will allow them to retain power and to build even bigger and more entrenched bureaucracies, which in turn further enrich the unions, which in turn provide even larger campaign contributions, which in turn…and the cycle of corruption and mismanagement of public funds never ends–but it does get worse, much worse.

I’m reasonably certain that Mrs. Charen would agree with me in my assessment of the foolishness of allowing public sector unions to bargain with government.  I, in turn, agree that unionism in education is a problem, but far more of a problem than she suggests in this article.

Let’s begin with the concept of teacher “tenure.”  Charen seems to believe that tenure in the college setting is essentially the same as that in the public schools. Not so.  Professors awarded tenure in the college setting do enjoy essentially a job for life and may be dislodged by only the most egregious misbehavior, and perhaps not even then.  One can build a sort of reasonable defense of that sort of tenure, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.

In the public schools, there is no parallel system.  “Continuing contract” teachers do not have unassailable jobs for life or anything like it.  What Charen calls “tenure” or a “continuing contract” is, in virtually every state, nothing more than a guarantee of minimal due process rights under state law—not union contracts. Union contracts commonly do build on those minimal guarantees and in some places, do make it virtually impossible to fire incompetent, even criminal teachers, but the politicians in those places wrote laws making this possible, and the bureaucrats and educrats agreed to those terms, often repeatedly over decades, sweetening the union pot each time contracts were renegotiated.

For teachers, earning “continuing contract” status after three years of probation means only that instead of having no reason to fire them, a principal must have some reason, and if they disagree, they have a right to have his decision reviewed in some fashion.  This does not, for a moment, mean that they will win a review, or that a principal’s reason for firing them must be particularly rational.  In fact, such systems are commonly biased in favor of school principals and administrators, and only the most egregious lack of judgement or misbehavior on their part will allow teachers to prevail.  This reality, for millions of American teachers, does not sound like the job for life situation suggested by Mrs. Charen, does it?   I have never worked under any other, and millions of American teachers are in the same boat.

While any due process protections might sound good for teachers, in reality, teachers live from paycheck to paycheck like most Americans.  If they are fired, they find themselves with no money with which to pursue legal or administrative remedies, fighting a school district with ready access to the public treasury.  In addition, if a teacher is let go at any time other than the end of a school year, they are often in deep trouble as school districts seldom need to hire full time teachers during the school year, and virtually all hiring is completed as many months prior to the beginning of each school year as possible.  No principal wants to spend their summer conducting job interviews.  A plumber or mechanic who loses his job need not wait until summer for their job market to open; teachers do.

In many ways, teachers and police officers find themselves in similar situations.  Both are public servants very much in the public eye.  Both can find themselves on the receiving end of unwarranted, even malicious citizen complaints that could easily end their careers at any moment.  However, consider that police officers commonly serve a probation of no more than a year before earning more robust due process protections than teachers must labor three years to obtain, and the police deal with life and death situations daily.

Charen’s argument also encompasses the idea that teachers deserve not even the small due process rights they currently enjoy.  Why shouldn’t principals be able to fire teachers on a whim, affording them no review, no recourse?  While that is essentially true in the private sector, it does not tell the entire story.

In private enterprise, businesses know that hiring and training employees is expensive.  There is, therefore, substantial incentive for businesses to avoid firing competent employees on whims; it’s inefficient and hurts the bottom line.  While this kind of firing certainly does occur, the self-interest of business owners and the profit motive tend to keep such irrational acts to a minimum.

Teachers do not compete in a marketplace in anything like the same manner as the private sector.  While hiring teachers can be annoying and time consuming, the only real expense involved is the time of the principal and the cost of some administrative assets.  Because teachers must hold college degrees and various other certifications before a state will allow them to teach at all, teachers arrive for work nearly entirely trained.  Unlike the private sector, in most places in America, there is no built-in, free market-like incentive to retain competent teachers.  While some schools assign more experienced mentors to new teachers, for most, it’s very much swim or sink.  Of course, competent principals will commonly wish to retain competent teachers, but I can certainly attest that in right to work states, teachers are fired every day, and not after years of legal wrestling.

It’s also worth remembering that teachers generally cannot earn additional salary through excellence, but through time-in-service step raises, and the occasional–often very occasional–raises voted by their respective school boards.  This means that the oldest and most experienced teachers are the most expensive while the youngsters just out of college are much less expensive.  Do not for a moment think that school administrators are not tempted to fire more expensive and capable teachers as a cost saving measure.  Don’t people who have given decades of honorable, dedicated service, deserve a minimal property right in their job?

Considering that most teachers in America earn salaries that place them solidly in the lower middle class, and that they serve in public service jobs with what is essentially a large target painted on their back, it does not seem excessive or unreasonable to afford them basic appeal procedures after they have served a probation three times longer than that commonly required of police officers.

Laws that would abolish these paltry protections miss the point.  If Mrs. Charen and her fellow parents find that an incompetent teacher cannot be fired, those protections aren’t the problem.  Competent principals and administrators have no difficulty firing incompetent teachers while obeying the law and treating everyone with dignity.  As I’ve already noted, in right to work states, teachers are fired every day in precisely the same manner as workers in the private sector.  State laws empowering public sector unions to extort their members and the public, and bureaucrats and educrats willing to grant outlandish and unsustainable compensation, benefits, working conditions, pensions and impossible standards for firing are the problem.

Giving principals unlimited power to fire teachers, competent or incompetent, for any or no reason, is as likely to cause schools to be filled with incompetent, corrupt cronies of corrupt, unprofessional principals as highly professional educators.  The problem is teacher unions and those that abet them, not the kinds of minimal working conditions and due process reviews that help to encourage idealistic young people to spend huge amounts of money and many years in college and after to earn far less than their degrees can elsewhere command.

Many years ago, then Governor of South Dakota, William Janklow, was speaking about placing teachers entirely on a hire/fire by whim system.  He observed that communities would not allow good teachers to be unfairly fired.  I’m sure Mr. Janklow knew better even as he was speaking those words.  Competent teachers across America surely do.  It’s a shame that Mrs. Charen apparently hasn’t had the opportunity to learn this reality.