Lies My Corporate Ed Reformers Told Me: The Truth About Teacher Tenure and the Civil Rights Movement

When so called "reformers" like Campbell Brown try to make the case that tenure extends teachers an unfair guarantee of employment unlike other public servants, she is more than stretching the truth.
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The champions of corporate education reform insist that efforts to strip teachers of the procedural guarantees of due process embedded in tenure are somehow an extension of the Civil Rights Movement. In the latest iteration of this make-believe history, former CNN anchor Campbell Brown and her ally, lawyer David Boies, wax philosophical about how their campaign to end tenure is really "about Civil Rights." While the rhetoric plays well in the press, it deliberately misrepresents the actual history of Civil Rights. In reality, teachers played a critical role in the movement. In some cases, they were able to do so because they were bolstered by tenure, preventing their arbitrary dismissal for activism.

Early in its campaign to challenge segregation in the courts the NAACP chief attorney, Thurgood Marshall recognized teachers as important allies. In Simple Justice, his seminal study of the history of Brown v. Board of Education, historian Richard Kluger observed,

"teachers were of special importance because there were so many of them, because they were generally leaders in their community, and because they were paid by the government, which in theory was not supposed to discriminate against anyone on account of race."

What Kluger described of course, was the thin but important layer of protection offered by tenure that allowed teachers to participate in lawsuits and other actions that would have proved difficult for those with no such guarantee of due process. During the Jim Crow era, one of the most effective weapons segregationists had in their arsenal of terror was the power to fire or refuse to hire those who engaged in acts of civil disobedience or challenged the status quo. With the higher duty to protect children, many teachers bravely faced this challenge, using their classrooms not only to teach basic skills, but also to encourage critical thinking skills and inspiring young people to challenge second-class citizenship. Recent scholarship as well as personal memoirs captures this important role played by educators. In a 2009 biography Claudette Colvin, who at 15 refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus nearly nine months before Rosa Parks, credited her teachers with inspiring her to make her courageous stand against Southern apartheid.

Not all Black teachers were awarded tenure. In fact, very few states in the South offered the basic guarantee of due process to Black teachers but, in those states where teachers were protected, they were able to speak and testify openly and honestly about the detrimental impact of Jim Crow on their students.

Their professionalism and candor underscored the damning nature of Jim Crow, not in the lack of quality instruction but in the substandard facilities, large class sizes, lack of resources, and psychological impact segregation had on students -- not to mention the disparities in pay and benefits including tenure.

Then, as now, tenure had to be earned. It was not granted for simply marking time. As Richard Kluger observed of Maryland, one of the few states to extend tenure to teachers of color, "black teachers were given job tenure after several years of satisfactory service." It was especially difficult, given the prejudice of the period to earn. Once conferred, it had the added benefit, of allowing them to explore new avenues of resistance. The protection of due process, assured the teachers that did stand up to register to vote, serve as plaintiffs in lawsuits, or join picket lines that their jobs were not easily compromised. In the realm of education, their ability to speak freely and forcibly as advocates for equal rights for their students was critical.

It also protected qualified Black teachers from the double-edged sword of integration. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown, there was significant concern over the potential for a massive firing of Black teachers rather than allowing them to teach in newly integrated schools.

Even so-called racial moderates like Louisville, Kentucky Superintendent Omer Carmichael, who voluntarily moved to comply with the Supreme Court's decision, tried to make the case for the mass dismissal of Black educators under the subterfuge that they were "bad" teachers. Although he claimed to be acting in the public interest, his arguments were fueled by racism. "The average white teacher," he told U.S. News and World Report in 1956 "is considerably superior to the average Negro teacher"; he further noted that "degrees and credit are not the sole measure of competence" and that "being taught by a Negro" would have a detrimental impact on children. It was not teacher preparation or performance, but assumptions about background that informed Carmichael's position:

"How can a person come out of a slummy, crime-ridden area of the city, with poor churches and few things that go to enrich life," he asked, [be the] "equal of one who comes out of a more cultured home in a more cultured community?"

In challenging such arbitrary and capricious views the NAACP substantively demonstrated the important impact teachers of color had on the lives of the children they served and how their qualifications and record of exemplary service entitled them to the same protection from being terminated without due process as their white counterparts. If not for tenure however, officials like Carmichael might have succeeded in firing teachers as retaliation for involvement in Civil Rights activities or simply because of their race.

In this way, tenure actually helped protect some teachers from unfairly being dismissed from their jobs in the wake of integration. Yet, even with this protection as numerous books on the subject illustrate, many teachers still lost their jobs in racial fueled witch-hunts.

So when so called "reformers" like Campbell Brown try to make the case that tenure extends teachers an unfair guarantee of employment unlike other public servants, she is more than stretching the truth. To be clear, when confronted with inequalities in pay and the denial of tenure to Black teachers, the NAACP did not argue for an end to tenure, but for the extension of the same basic protections of due process to Black teachers. In addition, when her allies like David Boies try to claim they are carrying on the legacy of the movement, they are not. Instead, they should address the issues of poverty and inequality; the same issues raised by the NAACP in 1950s and1960s that continue to plague American education. The lack of resources, bloated class sizes, high stakes testing, and zip code discrimination are real problems -- not teacher tenure.

At the end of the day, what made teachers so critical to the Civil Rights Movement is partly what makes many of them dangerous to the agenda of the so-called education reformers today. Why is divesting tenure at the top of their list? In stripping away due process and removing basic protection against retaliation, they will effectively silence the strongest line of defense against those practices, such as high stakes testing, and re-segregation that remain harmful to children. In the process, they will clear the way for the ultimate corporatizing of American education in opposition to both the history and legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. Fortunately teachers have already begun to organize to make a stand in an effort to shield and protect those who stand to be harmed most -- our children.

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