Commentary: Here's a reason why tenure is a bad idea

The Miami HeraldApril 23, 2010 

When Charlie Crist vetoed the educational reform bill last week, I thought immediately of George Adamski, who in 1947 became the first American to announce he'd met with space aliens. A friendly bunch — they even gave him some tummy-ache medicine to pass along to the pope — the aliens took Adamski on several tours of the solar system in their spaceship over the next few years. In several books he wrote on the subject, Adamski said he liked the dark side of the moon best, for its thriving cities and snowy peaks.

Oh, don't get the wrong idea — I don't suspect Gov. Crist is a space alien, though I'm sure he'd happily marry a Martian if it would bump up his polling numbers a point or two. It's just that my detailed knowledge of the life of George Adamski is the fruit of teacher tenure, which the reform bill would have eliminated.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had an elderly Spanish teacher who was obsessed with UFOs, and we spent a lot more class time debating Adamski's theories on Venusian civilization than conjugating irregular verbs. And our comparatively rare forays into Spanish grammar were usually derailed: Any kid who muffed a line in one of the conversational dialogues we were supposed to memorize and recite (Hola Juan, cómo estás? Estoy bien, gracias, y tú?) could immediately reduce the class to chaos by shouting, "It's not my fault, Miss Napoleon, my mind was seized by Master Control in Ship X-7!"

I didn't know any other teachers who were as flat-out daft as old Miss Napoleon, but there were several who used their classrooms for stuff other than teaching their assigned subjects. One science teacher, who ran a private martial-arts club on weekends, gave us extra credit if we helped him organize karate tournaments; another, who doubled as the baseball coach, excused us from class to help spruce up the field.

None of this stuff was a secret; many times I heard other teachers gossiping enviously about the lucrative karate tournaments or speculating hopefully about whether this would be the year Miss Napoleon finally retired. (Her rants about UFOs had apparently made her the terror of the teachers' lounge.) And the fact was, unless she retired, there was practically nothing anybody could do about Miss Napoleon; she had tenure — employment for life.

Make no mistake, that's exactly what tenure is. Devised early in the 20th century to prevent arbitrary firings over politics (teaching positions were frequently used as patronage) or pregnancy (a widespread practice in an age when nearly all teachers were women), it's turned into an administrative straitjacket that effectively prevents them from being dismissed for anything at all.

To read the complete column, visit www.miamiherald.com.

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