D'AMATO AND TENURE

1/1/98

For months, New York Senator Alfonse D'Amato has been waging a media blitz throughout the state attempting to buck up a faltering public opinion of his performance in Washington. His hope of revitalizing his image with voters by pillorying Hillary Clinton having come to naught, D'Amato, always seeking an enemy to attack, has now chosen the state's teachers as his new target, launching a blistering TV and radio attack on the tenure system, blaming it for many of the faults of our nation's schools. These days, it seems as though attacking teacher tenure has become the last refuge of a scoundrel, patriotism having lost some of its luster with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. A new poll commissioned by the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), however, suggests that the "pot hole" senator may have misunderstood the sentiment of the public on this issue.

The new poll, done by Zogby International, began by asking a representative sample of New Yorkers if they opposed teacher tenure. Responses were almost evenly split, 43% in support, 46% opposed with 10% unsure. When asked in a follow up question whether they would support the replacement of teacher tenure with a system that afforded teachers the right to an impartial hearing before they could be fired by a board of education, an overwhelming 84% said they favored such a system. Clearly, the public in characteristically American fashion favors due process before depriving a teacher of a job. Clear as well is that the public wants a system that it doesn't realize it already has. The word "tenure" having become so emotionally charged by the extremists bent on its destruction, almost half of the public oppose it without realizing what it is, a system for providing due process before disciplinary action can be taken against a teacher.

Some other findings of the Zogby poll are equally interesting. By a margin of 99%, New Yorkers believe that teachers should have a right to know the allegations against them before they are charged. A similar 98% believe that teachers should have the right to defend themselves before being disciplined or fired. Two thirds of the poll's respondents felt that the final decision in discipline cases should be an impartial person, not an administrator or member of a board of education. Remarkably, New Yorkers also favor shortening the current 3 year probationary period before a teacher is eligible to receive tenure. Further yet, the public, by almost 80%, favors giving probationary teachers, who may currently be fired with only 30 days notice, the same due process rights that tenured teachers have.

The results of this poll should in no way be surprising. As Americans, New Yorkers value fairness and are strong believers in due process. They abhor arbitrary power and are repulsed when political considerations influence decisions that should be based on merit. By a vast majority they rate their children's teachers as good to excellent and recognize that what trouble exists in our nation's schools cannot be blamed on the dedicated men and women who educate our youth, often under the most difficult circumstances. In short, the values of New Yorkers are much better than those of the senator who claims to represent them.

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