Teaching is no longer a job for life in the West Coast state of Oregon, where new legislation will put its 38,000 teaching staff on renewable two-year contracts. The laws threaten a national precedent in overturning decades-old tenure rights for American teachers.
Until now teachers in Oregon, as in most other states, gained so-called permanent contracts, with stiff employment protections, after a three-year probation period. But with rising demands for reform of public education, critics complain the current system makes it almost impossible to dismiss sub-standard staff.
The Oregon Education Association, the local branch of America's biggest teaching union, fought hard against the Bill, but it was passed by Oregon's Republican-controlled Senate and House of Representatives. It will be signed into law by a Democrat governor who has promised accountability in schools.
The National Education Association, at its annual meeting in Atlanta, voted for a resolution that would ease the dismissal of teachers, but would use a peer review system by colleagues. I
Historically both the NEA and its smaller union rival the American Federation of Teachers have adamantly defended tenure, and officially opposed even peer review. But both unions are stressing their own flexibility and commitment to teacher quality, apparently in a bid to head off more
drastic changes in teacher employment laws. The NEA talks of a "new unionism", stressing the positives.
"There are attacks on tenure left and right," led by conservatives, said an AFT spokeswoman. "There is this notion that teachers will protect teachers at all costs and that's not the case. Even under tenure you can get rid of the bad teachers. Teachers want to get the bad teachers out of the classroom."
In Oregon, it is theoretically possible to dismiss a teacher on the existing contracts, for insubordination, incompetence, or other reasons. But it took on average 18 months and $30,000 to $40, 000 (#163;18,000 to #163;24,000) in legal fees to fire a teacher, a price beyond the budgets of small districts, backers of the new law claim.
"Last year there was just one teacher that was dismissed through the fair dismissal process, out of 38,000," said Senator Gene Durfler, the Republican leader, in an interview.
"It was obvious that this unsatisfactory process wasn't working. If you talk to anyone in the school system there are poor teachers there, but it's too costly to get rid of them."
The Oregon school system is not riddled with problems like neighbouring California's. Its teacher salaries are the fourth highest in the nation and it scores reasonably high in the league table of school results. But it is losing pupils to home schooling and private schools, said Senator Durfler.
Under the new system, a teacher will be given a year's notice that their two-year contract is not being extended. They will have that time to work with the school and district to improve their performance. If their contract is then not renewed, and they appeal, the case will be heard by a panel of three, including a teacher, a school board member, and a third outsider. Any grievance claims will be heard at the same time.
In New York, a 1994 study showed it took an average of about 18 months and #163;108,000 to fire a teacher. There, the state school boards association is trying to get teachers to renew their licences every five years.
In New Hampshire, a Democrat governor vetoed a Bill similar to Oregon's. and in Florida under-performing teachers are being given shorter notices.