Is Matt Damon Right That Tenure is Vital for K-12 Teachers?


A coupla days ago, actor Matt Damon did an "Ask Me Anything" on Reddit. In answer to one of the questions, he uncorked this reference to a 2011 exchange he had with Reason at a pro-teacher rally:

We would never let business men design warheads, why would you cut out educators when you're designing education policy? This was for one of those libertarian websites and they had an attack question planned about tenure. Diane Ravitch was there, she's a huge figure in education and she jumped in and just set them straight about what having tenure meant. It just basically means you have the right to be represented, and have your side of something heard if someone is trying to get rid of you.

There's a lot of things to agree with in Damon's comments about education. Yes, No Child Left Behind is an expensive and ineffective boondoggle (also, a bipartisan one). And K-12 education is fairly obsessed with standardarized tests, a problem that will only get worse as "Common Core" guidelines fully start influencing curricula around the country. As Matt Welch and I point out somewhere in The Declaration of Independents, K-12 education is so ossified that it's still following a 19th-century agricultural schedule that even farmers don't use anymore.

But Damon's understanding of the role of teacher tenure as it applies to K-12 teachers is simply wrong (as is his characterization of Reason's offending question that starts his rant, on display below). To pretend that tenure for elementary and secondary-school teachers—which typically kicks in after a few years on the job—is simply about wrongful termination underscores Damon's complete lack of knowledge of how public education works. And it has nothing in common with tenure at the college and university level, which is far more rigorous and includes important (though often overstated) safeguards for academic freedom. Teachers are among the very most politically powerful entities in any given local or state decision-making process. Far from somehow being disenfranchised in the setting of educational policy and especially in terms of job dismissal, teachers are doing pretty damn swell. If you want a particularly egregious example of just how far legal protections for teachers can go, check out this 2006 Reason piece by John Stossel. Titled "How do I fire an incompetent teacher?," it documents the virtual impossibility of booting godawful employees from the New York City public school system. That's an extreme situation, but the general outline holds true everywhere.

Damon is hardly alone is suggesting that tenure is some sort of noble bulwark against a particularly nasty and brutish public-sector work jungle. Here's Erik Kain writing at Forbes in 2011:

Teachers need protection from over-zealous bosses and ideological politicians. This is the same thinking behind seniority rules, which protect more expensive teachers (i.e. veterans) from being laid off due to budget cuts. Teaching is not a high-paying job compared to jobs in the private sector, and one of the benefits is some job security.

Kain was writing about a Chicago Tribune infographic bemoaning how long it takes to get rid of substandard teachers. Do people really believe that, absent the current system of tenuring, politicians would be firing massive numbers of teachers? Or that "over-zealous bosses" would fire public-school teachers more readily than, I don't know, private-school teachers? Is K-12 education a unique field that would get rid of experienced (and presumably more effective) workers simply because they cost more?

How is it that good workers in all sorts of industries and fields manage to keep their jobs, get promotions, and be evaluated fairly but K-12 teachers need tenure early on in their careers? Could it have less to do with any sort of pressing need and more to do with the political clout wielded by teachers unions and professional associations? And a taxpaying public essentially held hostage by the same? I'm just throwing out some ideas here…

To that latter point, Damon and others routinely assert that public school teachers don't make good money. That is flatly false. Public school teachers make on average about $13,000 a year more in straight salary than their private-school counterparts, and the compensation gap grows still wider when retirement and health benefits are added in. And when teacher pay is compared to other professionals' pay on an hourly basis, teachers do extremely well. The idea that public-sector workers are trading salary for security is a well-documented myth.

As it happens, National School Choice Week, which annually celebrates a true grassroots movement pushing towards increasing options for all K-12 students, just ended recently (check out this Reason TV video about the future of school choice). I'm curious if Damon believes that's a righteous cause. I think I know the answer. Last year, Damon took a bunch of shit for opting out of sending his children to Los Angeles Unified School District schools. He argued that they weren't "progressive" enough for his tastes, so he had no choice but to opt for a private school. It's great that he exercised his right to choose. But does he support the right of parents without his economic means to do the same? How much do you want to bet that whatever private schools his kids attend have far weaker tenure protections than the LAUSD?

Here's the original Reason TV video with Damon being interviewed by Michelle Fields. Produced by Jim Epstein, who also enters the fray: