The narrow question whether public school teachers should continue to have tenure, as they mostly still do, opens into the broad question of the extent to which education should be provided by a free market or by the government. It is rare for private employers to offer tenure contracts to their employees unless the employees are represented by a union, as public school teachers often are; and so the question of tenure for public school teachers is unavoidably a question about the desirability of permitting teachers to unionize. However, quite apart from unions, public school teachers have traditionally obtained tenure after a short probationary period, by statute. Teacher tenure is now under fire in many states as are teachers’ unions.
There is general recognition that education provides significant external benefits—significant enough to warrant public subsidy. But public subsidy needn’t imply public provision of the subsidized service. Government subsidizes health care but does not provide the health care itself, with a few exceptions, such as for soldiers (including veterans) and prison inmates, and, in big cities primarily, for indigents. There are many private schools, religious and secular, and a good deal of home schooling. There are also many “charter” schools, which are quasi-private. But most Americans continue to be educated in public schools, owned by local governments (I do not discuss higher education, and hence state-owned as distinct from local schools)
Is this a mistake? Should education be privatized? Conversely, should private schools be discouraged?
The nation has evolved a two-tier education system, in part because of local funding of public schools. The children of the well to do, who tend also to be the most intelligent and well disciplined (though there are many excceptions), are educated primarily either in elite private schools or in well-funded public schools in wealthy suburbs, though some public schools regardless of location have selective admissions, such as the Bronx High School of Science in New York, and “magnet” schools in other cities.
Well-funded public schools appear to do as good a job in educating kids as private schools, and at comparable cost, which is reason to doubt that a free-market model of education is superior to a government model; this conclusion is also supported by the data periodically compiled and reported by PISA (OECD Programme for International Student Assessment) on the educational performance of 15 year olds in 74 different countries.
The student bodies in the well-funded public schools and private schools in this country are heavily white and Asian. Our large black and Hispanic populations, along with lower-class and lower middle-class whites, tend to be educated in public schools that are not well funded because they are located in poor communities; and as I said public schools are financed primarily by local taxation. Some residents of poor communities are educated in Catholic parochial schools, but these schools have been in decline for many years.
The lower-tier populations are poorer as well as residing for the most part (of course not all of them) in communities that do not have a large tax base. Poverty retards educational achievement, and the combination of poor students and poorly funded schools seems highly inimical to educational success. The effective (though incomplete) segregation of students by income and educational aptitude and promise probably hurts the students in the lower tier more than it helps the ones in the upper tier, provided there are more in the upper tier; for such a mixed-student-body public school will continue to attract good teachers and to be able to pay them well.
The focus of reform efforts is therefore, and rightly so, on the lower-tier students, who appear to be poorly served by their public schools and to have little access to private schools, other than Catholic parochial schools, which as I noted are in decline. The charter school is the principal tool of reform, and as it is quasi-private it provides a test of the proposition that privatizing education would improve eductional outcomes in the lower tier (in the upper tier, as I said, public education seems to work well). The goal of the charter-school movement is to increase competition in elementary and secondary education, in part by enabling parents to choose their children’s school and in part by freeing schools from traditional constraints, for example on firing underperforming teachers. But at present, despite many studies, the evidence that charter schools produce better educational outcomes than comparable conventional public schools is inconclusive, which suggests that if they are better, it is by only a small margin.
So, to return after this long detour to the opening question—should public school teachers be tenured (and should teachers’ unions be allowed, or at least allowed to negotiate tenure contracts for the teachers they represent)?—the answer may be that it doesn’t much matter from the standpoint of educational quality. On the one hand, tenure makes it difficult (though not impossible) to get rid of dead wood; on the other hand, like the long summer vacation of teachers, tenure provides a valuable nonpecuniary benefit to teachers, and this enables public schools to hire them at lower salaries than would otherwise be possible. Perhaps more important—and perhaps tipping the balance in favor of tenure—effective teaching is difficult to evaluate. The movement against tenure has coincided with a movement toward standardized testing to determine teacher quality and hence salary and retention. “Teaching to the test” may not be the best way of educating kids, though it works well in some countries, such as Japan.
It is not even clear that abolishing tenure would do much about the dead wood. tenure doesn't actually prevent firing an incompetent teacher; it just makes it more difficult because the employer has to show that he has "good cause" for firing. The fact that many public schools apparently don't bother to fire even their worst teachers suggests they wouldn't do much, maybe any, firing were there no tenure. It's when teachers belong to unions that it's hard to fire them, because the union will often act in effect as the teacher’s lawyer, making it costly for the school to fire the teacher. But this is a more an argument against teachers’ union than against tenure. If tenure is a big factor in public school quality, one would expect stronger evidence fo the superiority of charter schools.
When job performance is difficult to evaluate, employers make a greater effort at screening; unable to evaluate output, they hire on the basis of input (credentials, qualifications, etc.), hoping for a positive correlation between input and output. Maybe more careful screening of teacher candidates, as by insisting on graduate training other than in education departments, would be a better approach than abolishing tenure. Or perhaps the economist James Heckman is right that educational resources should be shifted toward very early childhood education plus aid to parents of poor children.
The problem with American elementary and secondary education may not be its primarily public character, but income inequality and the tendency to segregation of students by family income.