As California comes to grips with an educational system that hovers around last place in the nation, teacher tenure — the protected status of teaching positions — is being reexamined. School district officials, such as Joseph J. Woodford, an assistant San Bernardino superintendent, argue that tenure and the laws that enforce it protect and entrench bad teachers in California, while supporters of tenure, such as Wayne Johnson of the California Teachers Association, believe tenure is necessary to prevent arbitrary firings.

The Law

By law, teachers in California gain tenure after a two-year probationary period. After acquiring tenure, a California teacher may only be fired for poor performance or misconduct. Under California tenure law, students’ inferior scholastic ability does not qualify as “just cause” to dismiss a teacher. Additionally, tenure law mandates that a governing board give teachers written notice of intent to dismiss for unsatisfactory performance. The notice must contain references to the behavior in question and must be given to the teacher three months before charges are filed. The teacher can ask for an administrative hearing within 30 days of notification.

The Problem

In a paper at the California Department of Education website, reporter Sigrid Bathen points to the case of a San Bernardino teacher as an example of the damage caused by tenure laws and the frustration some administrators feel when trying to rid their classrooms of incompetence. Even after doggedly documenting the teacher’s behavior, which included leaving her classes unattended, playing R-rated movies for fifth graders and calling some male students “gay,” the San Bernardino district still had to spend $100,000 in legal fees and $25,000 to settle the case and persuade the 20-year veteran to leave.


The first tenure laws in California were enacted in the 1920s to defend teachers against capricious firings. Before the tenure laws’ mandate of due process, teachers could be fired on the spot, for any reason. With women comprising a solid majority of the teaching force in California, the laws were at least partly the result of the women’s rights movement of the time. Before the laws, women could be fired for such violations as wearing pants and being seen out on the streets after a certain hour.

Termination Process

The rules regarding the termination of tenured teachers in California are complex, unwieldy and expensive, say district officials. For example, an adjudication hearing on the matter must proceed before a three-member Commission on Professional Competence, which also includes a state administrative law judge, a representative from the district and a representative for the teacher. The hearing, which was established by California law in the 1970s, is considered by the California School Boards Association — a group of lawyers and school board members — to be needlessly complicated and time consuming.