Educators have long relied on tenure and seniority to guard against arbitrary dismissals and other adverse employment actions. But as teachers at every stage of their careers are forced to defend their job rights, older teachers may increasingly be caught in the crossfire.
Significantly, seniority and tenure involve the factor of age. Seniority is, of course, a function of age; the older teacher has accumulated years of job experience. Similarly, tenure is awarded after years of gaining on-the-job experience. Thus the attack on seniority and tenure is often a disguised effort to discriminate against veteran teachers. It is based on the false stereotype that older teachers, as a class, have lost their edge and younger teachers, by virtue of their age, are better for the job.
Older educators are particularly vulnerable in California, where a high-stakes battle over job security for some 300,000 K-12 teachers is now taking place. In Vergara v. California, nine public school students hand-picked by the school advocacy group Students Matter allege that the tenure and seniority rules, including a last-in-first out policy, undermine their right to a good education.
Fortunately, a number of states besides California are resisting pressure from Students Matter and other like-minded groups that blame teachers when students perform poorly. Last year, for instance, the Children’s Education Council of Missouri failed to convince Missouri lawmakers to end tenure. In 2012, Virginia’s Republican-led Senate derailed a tenure reform bill despite strong support from then-governor Robert F. McDonnell.
But many states including North Carolina and Florida have already eliminated, watered down or begun to phase-out tenure altogether. And in at least two states — Louisiana and Utah —administrators are forbidden to consider seniority when deciding which teachers to let go.
A recent North Carolina Court of Appeals case illustrates the vulnerability of teachers who don’t have tenure. Both the appeals and lower courts agreed that the school board that denied second-grade teacher Vanessa Joyner career status was unfairly influenced by a member who held a grudge against Joyner. because she had reported his wife to the principal where they both worked.
New laws weakening tenure and seniority undermine the ability of NEA and its affiliates to rely on collective bargaining to prevent age discrimination and redress ageism. Fortunately, we do have other tools in our legal arsenal. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act and comparable state laws can be used to show that efforts to wear down tenure and seniority rights are aimed squarely at older teachers. In addition, at the very least, these laws can be used to show that anti-tenure and anti-seniority moves have a disproportionate impact on older teachers. In addition to helping defending against bogus claims like those being alleged in Vergara, these laws provide for relief for teachers who have been the victims of discriminatory discharges or other adverse actions.
At the end of the day, however, the best defense is a good offense. And that’s where education comes in. Teachers and other educators must work harder to educate parents and students about the important role tenure and seniority play in recruiting and retaining quality teachers. And they must convince lawmakers that when it comes to addressing today’s challenges in the classroom, there is no substitute for experience.