Why do schoolteachers have tenure?
The practice started in universities in the late 19th century to protect the academic freedom of professors. When it first took hold in public schools, at the outset of the 20th century, tenure was supposed to block city administrations from turning school posts into patronage mills where teachers could be fired because they married, got pregnant, or belonged to the wrong political party. But as teachers unions gained clout after World War II, tenure became a virtual guarantee of permanent employment, widely granted after just three years on the job. As a result, critics say, underperforming teachers have become nearly impossible to fire. In New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles in recent years, fewer than one out of every 1,000 tenured teachers have been successfully fired—and that’s usually for serious misconduct, not poor teaching ability. “Teaching can no longer be the only profession where you have no rewards for excellence and no consequences for failure to perform,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently said. “The time to eliminate teacher tenure is now.”

Why is this issue coming up now?
For two reasons: Strapped public finances and the concerted effort to improve America’s public schools. In the face of declining tax revenues, governors and mayors across the country are slashing school budgets. These officials want to be able to lay off teachers who are going through the motions, instead of just the younger and lower-paid teachers who are the first to go under union rules. “In almost every state across the country, the ‘last in, first out’ policy is softening America’s competitive edge,” says Michelle Rhee, former schools chancellor of Washington, D.C. “We end up firing some of our most highly effective educators.” The pressure is coming from both parties. Under President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, states are pitted against one another for shares of $4.4 billion in federal grant money, and must demonstrate that they hold teachers accountable for students’ performance. “It is time to start rewarding good teachers and stop making excuses for the bad ones,” said Obama.

Is this the end of tenure?
It could be. In recent polls, 66 percent of Americans said they opposed the practice, which triggers special resentment among the millions laid off from the private sector. In response to this growing sentiment, legislatures in Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada, Tennessee, New Jersey, and Colorado have proposed or passed laws overhauling or even eliminating tenure. “In all my years in education, I don’t remember a time when there was this much concerted effort to eliminate fair-dismissal laws,” said Dennis Van Roekel of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union.

Are there any alternatives?
Yes. Some officials have proposed making it harder to get tenure rather than scrapping the system altogether. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pushed through new rules requiring principals to rigorously evaluate a new teacher’s performance before granting tenure. Teachers now have to get high marks across three categories, including student performance, for two consecutive years to be awarded tenure. Many younger teachers endorse the change. “I feel that my effectiveness should be taken into account,” said a third-year teacher in the Bronx.

Are the unions fighting back?
Yes, but it has become a rearguard action. In a bid to keep tenure from being eliminated altogether, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, proposed last month that teachers who receive poor evaluations be sacked if they don’t show improvement within a year. That way, she says, “people can’t use tenure as an excuse anymore not to engage in legitimate evaluations of teachers.” She agrees with critics that those evaluations have to be tougher: A 2009 poll found that even in poorly performing schools, less than 1 percent of the nation’s teachers were deemed unsatisfactory by administrators. “Tenure says you can’t be dismissed unless you are shown to be incompetent through the evaluation process,” said Timothy Daly, president of the reformist New Teacher Project, “but the evaluation process doesn’t work at all, so tenure is seen as an ironclad guarantee of a job.”

What if tenure is eliminated?
Unions argue that if teachers are completely stripped of job protection, cash-strapped school districts will fire the most experienced and best-paid teachers, instead of the worst. They also contend that teachers could become pawns in ideological debates over issues like sex education and evolution, with local school boards firing teachers who don’t bow to their demands. Some teachers even worry that without tenure, they will lose their jobs if they advocate for their students and their schools. “I need tenure to speak out,” said one New York City teacher who has vocally opposed classroom overcrowding and other issues. “I’m standing up for the kids.”

Extraordinary measures
Firing “a single teacher can take hundreds of thousands of dollars and several years,” says Drew University professor Patrick McGuinn. “Except in the most egregious of circumstances,” most school officials don’t even go that route. But there is a work-around for those willing to use guile. The University of Chicago’s Sara Ray Stoelinga recently interviewed 40 school administrators in Chicago and discovered that 37 of them had resorted to some form of harassment to pressure subpar teachers into leaving on their own. One moved a teacher who had trouble walking up stairs to a classroom on the fourth floor of a building that didn’t have a working elevator; another reassigned a longtime eighth-grade teacher to a first-grade class. Such measures, said one respondent, are born of frustration with the onerous dismissal process. When “you are doing crazy things like messing with teacher room assignments and praying someone will leave,” he said, “that is the mark of an insane system.”