August 1, 2011
Mayor Bloomberg’s comments on his Friday radio show that tenure “may have been necessary in the McCarthy era” but is now a relic of the past highlight how out of touch he is with the current realities of the school system.
Bloomberg argued that protection for academic freedom was not necessary for public school teachers because we are “not writing papers about things that are very controversial.” However, in some schools, advocacy for students or for the employment rights of teachers can result in witch-hunts from school administrators that can border on the McCarthyesque. Tenure is meant to shelter teachers from the whims of these administrators.
As two New York City teachers who have both been targeted with unsatisfactory ratings because of our union activity, we know from firsthand experience that tenure is one of the few protections for whistleblowers and teacher advocates.
One of us, Rachel Montagano, as a union representative at MS 216 in Queens, experienced a repeated pattern of being scrutinized for her teaching practices immediately after conducting union activities. For example, after she refused to sign off on a safety plan that was written without teacher input, she was accused of insubordination. That began a pattern that has resulted in Montagano, a veteran reading coach who helped develop curriculum for the school, receiving her first-ever unfavorable reviews and facing incompetence charges. Administrators entered union meetings, or stood outside, sometimes writing down who showed up; a clear force of intimidation with the message, “we are watching you.” Without tenure due process, Montagano and some of her colleagues would already be facing unemployment because of her willingness to stand up for the safety of her students and for the rights of her colleagues. Meanwhile, their principal, Reggie Landau, set fire to his office with an illegal hotplate but has not faced sanction from the Department of Education.
The other of us, Peter Lamphere, as a union delegate at the Bronx High School of Science, participated in a harassment grievance along with 19 other colleagues from the mathematics department. Shortly afterward, he received unsatisfactory ratings for the first time in his career, and other teachers were subjected to various forms of harassment. A neutral fact-finder later supported the grievance and found that administrators’ belief that Lamphere was a ringleader of the grievance played a role in the harassment. Without tenure rights, Lamphere would have been fired long before the grievance was heard. Five of the six untenured teachers who signed the math department grievance had left the school within six months, either after being fired or fleeing before their careers would be destroyed.
We join a long list of educators who have been targeted because of their union activity or for aspects of their identities.
At Fordham School of the Arts in the Bronx, Principal Iris Blige was found by the DOE’s Office of Special Investigation to have ordered her assistant principals to rate teachers unsatisfactory before their teaching was observed, in at least one case because the teacher participated in union activities. Unfortunately for many of the teachers and APs involved, many had not yet received tenure and permanently lost any hope of a job in the New York City school system. (Blige was fined a small amount and remains in her position.)
Independence High School UFT chapter leader Michael McPherrin was smeared by his principal after making a series of recommendations about the direction of the school. In return for his professional input and acting in the best interest of his students and staff, the principal turned around and tried to fire him, charging him with “unprofessional conduct.” Without the tenure protections, a strong advocate for teachers and students like McPherrin would have been removed at a whim.
Chapter leader Kimani Brown was removed from the classroom after he blew the whistle on special education practices at his school, Frederick Douglas Academy IV in Brooklyn. He was eventually cleared of all of the trumped up charges (except one — calling his principal a liar).
And at Opportunity Charter School in Manhattan, where teachers are not automatically part of the UFT, more than a dozen teachers were fired this year after they tried to unionize, showing what can happen without tenure protection.
Tenure also provides protection against other forms of discrimination, beyond attacks on whistleblowers and union activists. Homophobic students accused Stuyvesant High School librarian Chris Asch of inappropriate touching, a charge that a judge recently dismissed, saying that Asch’s suspension was the product of discrimination. The false accusations caused Asch a three-year legal nightmare that included being called “pervert” in the press. But if Asch had not had tenure rights, they would have cost him his job and pension immediately. Without those due process rights, the protections of antidiscrimination law are often meaningless because few are willing or able to go through lengthy court battles after their jobs have already been taken away.
The stories detailed here are only a few cases culled from recent local headlines — a small selection of incidents that the mayor should already be familiar with before he proclaims that tenure is useless. And those situations that receive public attention are a subset of what must be countless stories where school workers have been harassed because of their willingness to advocate or, perhaps more shamefully, because of who they love, what God they worship, or the color of their skin.
The history Mayor Bloomberg cites as justification for eliminating tenure actually supports an ongoing need for the practice. Contrary to what Bloomberg has asserted, New York’s first tenure law of 1917 predated both this century’s Red Scares, and was primarily a Progressive Era reform aimed at protecting teachers from the whims of political patronage machines and from corrupt and arbitrary employment practices. It actually served as little defense for the hundreds of New York teachers dismissed in the 1950s for suspicion of membership in the Communist Party (none of whom, as Baruch College history professor Clarence Taylor documents in his excellent new study, were ever accused of unprofessional conduct).
Far from being a relic of a bygone era, tenure is a crucial line of defense against discrimination, whether based on identity, union activity, or political affiliation. Contrary to what Mayor Bloomberg says, tenure does not guarantee a job for life. Instead, it simply provides right to present a defense against allegations from an administrator. Since the DOE rarely questions the accounts of principals (even from those completely discredited like Blige) it is crucial to have some kind of neutral procedure for evaluating charges. The continued weakening of tenure rights would return us to days when teachers would be unable to speak up for their schools, their students or their colleagues for fear of McCarthy-style retaliation from administrators. This already happens too much in New York City — destroying tenure would make it rampant and would be a disaster for public education.